The 21 Best Albums and 100 Best Songs of 2021

From Olivia Rodrigo and The War on Drugs to Yola and Tony Bennett, InsideHook staffers pick their favorite music of the year

December 17, 2021 9:30 am
best music 2021
These were the records on heavy rotation at InsideHook HQ this year.
Gabriel Serrano

For the second consecutive year, the music industry was derailed (at least partially) by the COVID-19 pandemic. Things briefly looked up in 2021, with live concerts and festivals returning over the summer — albeit at limited capacity and with additional safety precautions in place — and artists scrambling to recoup some of the massive financial losses of the year prior, but by the time fall rolled around, the Delta variant forced some to take a step back and once again cancel planned performances. Now that Omicron is here in full force, unfortunately we can expect more of the same.

Fortunately, however, that hasn’t stopped musicians from getting into the studio and releasing new albums, and 2021 was chock full of excellent releases — from new discoveries like the 18-year-old pop star who took over the world to old favorites like the 95-year-old crooner who set a record for being the oldest person to put out an album of new material. As we trudged through year two of COVID-19, these records provided a welcome distraction and some much-needed comfort.

Before we dive into all of our favorite releases from the past year though, we must remind you that here at InsideHook, we’re big believers in the subjectivity of art and find the concept of ranking the “best” albums and songs to be inherently silly. Instead, these are our personal picks, presented in no particular order below. No big declarations or squabbling over whether the 37th-best album of the year should actually have been ranked No. 36 — just the records we happened to like the most from this latest trip around the sun. We’ve rounded up our favorites, along with a Spotify playlist of some of our favorite songs of 2021, below.

The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore

As a guitar nerd with a pronounced weakness for expansive delays and reverbs, especially when combined with an assortment of vintage synthesizers and analog keyboards I’ll never really understand, I’ve always been a fan of the War on Drugs, though admittedly from a distance. I own all their records and have occasionally found myself thinking, “Ooh, the War on Drugs would definitely fit the mood right now,” but I have never really thought, “Ooh, I want to hear that one very specific War on Drugs song right now.” That’s started to change with I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Things feel a bit more pointed throughout. Melodies demand your attention, then counter melodies fight to steal it. Each instrument is intent on being heard rather than being content to join in the din as they have in the past. Frontman Adam Granduciel seems more willing to take centerstage, his vocals mixed a little higher and his vocal melodies a little more playful. There’s still vibes for days, but it feels like we’re just now getting a little peek at the people behind it. — Mike Conklin

Key track: “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”

Turnstile, Glow On

Every once in a while, a punk band crosses over to the masses on the sheer strength of a record, be it Green Day’s Dookie or blink-182’s Enema of the State. Baltimore hardcore band Turnstile may have their own shot at rock music ascendancy with Glow On, a record reflective of hardcore’s past, present and future. The group morphs elements of the genre into new forms, building pop songs out of mosh parts on “Underwater Boi” or throwing Van Halen-esque flourishes on “T.L.C.” It’s a welcoming record that urges listeners of all stripes and ages to take a stage dive, and for longer-tenured fans, it’s good to see what the band has been doing in the underground for over a decade finally receive some wider praise. — John Hill

Key track: “Holiday”

Lucy Dacus, Home Video

As you can probably surmise from the title, Home Video is a nostalgic look back at Dacus’s adolescence, full of fond memories as well as the kind of Kodak Carousel-style pain from old wounds that Don Draper famously described on Mad Men. Dacus went back and revisited the journals she kept during that period of her life while writing the album, and much of the record is highly specific to her experiences growing up queer and devoutly Christian (“Triple Dog Dare,” for example, details a close friendship that is nearly sabotaged when her friend’s religious mother — whom Dacus has said “saw what was going on in a way that I didn’t” — bans her daughter from spending time with her). But, of course, you don’t need to be a member of the LGBTQ community or someone who grew up in a strict church-going household to relate. That’s the beauty of confessional songwriting, especially when it’s done as skillfully as Dacus does it. — Bonnie Stiernberg

Key track: “Thumbs”

Rochelle Jordan, Play With the Changes

Throughout 2021 I found myself re-listening to one album in particular for some much needed sonic escapism. On Play With the Changes, Rochelle Jordan uses her delicate voice to float across melodic beats that feel other-worldly, even though lyrically she touches on some real-world issues. To place this album in any one genre is rather difficult, as it teeters between electronic, R&B, house and downtempo. Throughout, Jordan weaves personal, intimate stories into a dancefloor-ready framework; “Already” pinpoints the moment at which a former relationship reached its breaking point, while “Lay” interrogates the ways that social injustice is impacting the narrator’s current dalliance. This latest addition to her discography continues a lineage of ultra-vibey music that is at turns passionate, introspective and haunting. — Gabriel Serrano

Key track: “Already”

Katy Kirby, Cool Dry Place

On paper, Katy Kirby’s debut album, Cool Dry Place, is reminiscent of much of the indie-pop-rock we’ve seen find a real foothold these past years; it’s (at times) bouncy and easy, with twangy guitar tones and a repeatability that borders on endless. But beyond catchy hooks and some good-old fashioned belting, there’s an undeniable and scarcely seen maturity within the Texas native’s music: the record is full of space and stripped-back inclinations, allowing Kirby to float along — pushed on in part by her lilting tenor and in part by her indiscernible accent — with an organic levity and the intimacy of a seasoned songwriter. The opening track, “Eyelids,” provides the perfect example of the way Kirby treads lightly, featuring a sparse accompaniment of guitars and keys to Kirby’s just-for-you lyrics. That’s not to suggest CDP doesn’t have range; “Traffic” utilizes some tasteful autotune, and “Fireman” provides one of the catchiest choruses in recent memory (“My baby is a fireman / and I never will get tired of him”). — Paolo Sandoval

Key track: “Fireman”

Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Hip-hop fans of a certain vintage — mine, let’s call it anyone over the age of 30 — love to wring their hands over the current state of the genre, wondering how clumsily mumbled verses and sparse, laptop-bred production have become the norm. Then someone like Simz comes along to remind me that I am merely old, out of touch and worse at discovering new music than I was 10 years ago. SIMBI (a backronym riffing on Simz’s real-world alter-ego, Simbiatu “Simbi” Ajikawo) is the Nigerian-British rapper’s fourth studio album, and it’s surely her opus, with 17 tracks and 3 interludes that add up to an impressive 65-minute runtime. The production is deftly overseen by fellow Londoner Inflo, who’s worked with the likes of Adele and Michael Kiwanuka and shares Simz’s love of lush, theatrical, neo-soul soundscapes that would be right at home on a Lauryn Hill or Kendrick Lamar album. The one-two punch that opens the album — “Introvert,” with its crescendoing snares and strings, and “Woman,” a languid summer head-bobber — is all you’ll need to be hooked. –Walker Loetscher

Key track: “Woman”

Olivia Rodrigo, Sour

It’s tempting to build this whole writeup around the idea that I spend an inordinate amount of time with and in communication with people for whom this record was more obviously made, whether we’re talking about my 11- and 6-year-old daughters, my 19-year-old niece or even a 23-year-old co-worker I talk to about this sort of thing all the time. But to do so — to write off my fondness for the record as simply a result of personal circumstances or, worse, to chalk it up as some sort of guilty pop pleasure — would be a disservice to the songs and the singer. 

Olivia Rodrigo, the actor originally known in my home for her role on the Disney+ series High School Musicial the Musical: The Series (HSMTMTS, you might call it), first achieved viral success with her breakup ballad “Drivers License,” about driving around an ex’s neighborhood, most famous for its powerhouse bridge, which culminates with the crushing, plainspoken, “God, I’m so blue, know we’re through, but I still fuckin’ love you, babe.” After that it was “Good 4 U,” directed at that same ex, but a good deal angrier, this time clearly inspired by early-’00s mall punk — an absolute banger, to be clear, but the kind of song I wouldn’t necessarily blame you for wanting to roll your eyes at.

But these two songs — “Drivers License” for its virality and “Good 4 U” for its pop-punk pastiche — are actually outliers on Sour, which is otherwise far more subtle. “Enough for You” is powerful acoustic guitar ballad that provides just enough optimism to begin to offset its heartache. “Traitor” is a lush, orchestral kiss-off that’s taken on an even more impressive form in a live setting of late. And then there’s “Happier,” about watching the ex with his new girlfriend. “I hope you’re happy, just not like how you were with me,” she sings, because it’s the nicest she can bring herself to be. “Happier” also contains what I consider the record’s most affecting passage: “Now I’m picking her apart, like cutting her down will make you miss my wretched heart, but she’s beautiful. She looks kind. She probably gives you butterflies.” She’s momentarily checking herself, recognizing that she’s going down a path that isn’t doing anyone any favors.

For the rest of the record, though, she allows herself to explore that path fully. It runs the gamut from debilitatingly sad (“I’ve lost my mind, I spent the night crying on floor of my bathroom” in “Good 4 U) to sassy (“Don’t act like we didn’t do that shit too” in “Deja Vu”) to contemplative (“Like, am I pretty? Am I fun, boy? I hate that I give you power over that kind of stuff” in “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back”).

Do I like these songs so much because my circumstances caused me to be more exposed to them than I would have been under a different set of circumstances where I only hung out with other 40-somethings with impressive vinyl collections and very strong opinions about which Sonic Youth records are the most underrated? Probably, to a degree, yes. But that’s also kind of a shame, isn’t it? That I’d have missed out on all of this because it wasn’t quote-unquote meant for me? I’ll be forever grateful to my kids for fucking up my Spotify algorithm, for reminding me that what I like most about music is not even necessarily the music itself, but what it does to the people who feel it the most. — Mike Conklin

Key track: “Enough for You”

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Love for Sale

With Love for Sale, his second album with Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett set a Guinness World Record as the oldest person to release an album of new musical material at 95 years old. It’s an astonishing finale, especially considering he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2016, but this record of Cole Porter tunes isn’t about breaking records — as I wrote earlier this year, it’s about showing the last great American crooner is as good now as he was 60 years ago. Standards like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” are as good as they ever were, and maybe even better thanks to a top-notch band and unquestionable chemistry, but it’s the less recognizable tracks that’ll hook you, including opening track “It’s De-Lovely” and “Dream Dancing.” As with their first outing Cheek to Cheek, they take two solos each on the album, and Lady Gaga’s rendition of “Do I Love You” may just be the love song of the year.  — Alex Lauer

Key track: “It’s De-Lovely”

Citizen, Life in Your Glass World

We’re in the midst of an emo revival, but Citizen seems to have moved beyond early aughts angst and into something quite different … but, interestingly, incorporating sounds that hail from the same era. On their fourth record, Life In Your Glass World, the veteran Midwest band broadens its scope to embrace indie pop and the better parts of MGMT. “I Want to Kill You” might hint at their past, but standout “Blue Sunday” has melody and a real groove. The band’s upcoming tour with Turnstile and Ceremony feels right — it’s all sort of punk rock but also something far more interesting and exciting. — Kirk Miller

Key track: “Blue Sunday”

Darkside, Spiral

After Darkside played their first — and only — live shows back in 2014, fans of the collaboration between Chilean dark-disco demigod Nicolas Jaar and experimental jazz guitarist Dave Harrington assumed the project was probably done for good. Jaar had by then made a career of frustrating and subverting his fans’ expectations, releasing music only in sporadic, unplanned spurts before disappearing for months at a time to work on some elaborate museum show or re-score an obscure Soviet film from the ’60s. Then, at the nadir of the pandemic last December, the duo floated a little beacon of hope out into the abyss: “Liberty Bell,” a dark, sweaty, pulsating dance track that was inimitably theirs. Seven months later, a second full-length album, Spiral, followed, with a complement of nine sultry club tracks that became the soundtrack to my summer. And then, last week, they made the biggest announcement of all: a 2022 tour date at the inaugural iteration of Primavera Sound Los Angeles next September. If they end up announcing a full tour, you’d be well-advised not to miss it. –Walker Loetscher

Key track: “Liberty Bell”

The Felice Brothers, From Dreams to Dust

The Felice Brothers are a rowdy and ragged folk-influenced band from Upstate New York that have been at it for well over a decade and have been as consistently outstanding as they have been under the radar. From Dreams to Dust  is another worthwhile addition to their catalog, full of acoustic guitar, piano and lots of stellar storytelling. The strutting, vaguely old-timey album opener “Jazz on the Autobahn” is one of the great ear worms of the year. — Mike Conklin

Key track: “Jazz on the Autobahn”

Allison Russell, Outside Child

A concept album about childhood sexual abuse is something that, on paper at least, seems like it’d be too much to bear: too dark, too personal, something so horrifying that it’d be simply too painful to listen to. But remarkably, Allison Russell’s debut solo album Outside Child manages to tackle that extremely difficult subject matter while still sounding resilient, defiant and even upbeat at times. (You may know Russell from her previous work in Birds of Chicago or Our Native Daughters.) Outside Child chronicles the sexual and physical abuse that Russell suffered between the ages of five and 15 at the hands of her father while her mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, ignored it. On “4th Day Prayer,” she sings about how “Father used me like a knife / Mother turned the blindest eye,” but by the chorus, she declares “I rose again.” Likewise, on “Persephone,” she recalls finding sanctuary at the house of a friend after a particularly vicious attack. (“Blood on my shirt, two ripped buttons / Might’ve killed me that time if I let him,” she sings.) Ultimately, however, her outlook is stunningly optimistic, given everything she’s had to endure. “My petals are bruised, but I’m still a flower,” she proclaims. — Bonnie Stiernberg

Key track: “Nightflyer”

Midwife, Luminol

Under the moniker Midwife, Madeline Johnson has become a master at writing dreamy heartbreakers, calling her music “heaven metal.” Her new record Luminol lives up to that descriptor, wavering between heaviness and light through the vehicle of her guitar. On “Enemy,” the line “my body is against me, my body wants to kill me” builds and builds in an endless loop while the guitars create an ocean of sound behind it all. She uses these loops as transmutation, doing a quasi-cover of The Offspring’s “Gone Away,” where she takes the original’s chorus and makes it into something tragic and beautiful. — John Hill

Key track: “Enemy”

Rostam, Changephobia

There’s little to no question of Rostam Batmaglij’s skills as a producer; the ex-Vampire Weekend man has had a hand in shaping a plethora of smash-hit albums, ranging from it-girl Clairo’s Immunity to the much-beloved Women In Music Pt. III by HAIM. For his own sophomore album, Rostam incorporates so much of what makes him top-notch — idiosyncratic beats, indie-pop chords and the artist’s patented “smiley” vocals — into a new pursuit: a jazz-inspired record. To be clear, Changephobia still distinctly skews Ra Ra Riot over Chet Baker, but Rostam makes good use of saxophonist Henry Solomon for some vibey backing and baritone solos that would put Kenny G to shame. — Paolo Sandoval

Key track: “Kinney”

Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney, Superwolves

When I bought the original Superwolves album in 2006, I never would’ve guessed it’d be 16 years till there’d be a follow-up, and I certainly never would have guessed that all those years later, Matt Sweeney would be plastered all over the pages of GQ as some buzzy sort of style icon rather than an indie rock lifer who’s low-key played on all your favorite records. But anyway. Superwolves is a collaboration between the aforementioned Sweeney and Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, which is to say it’s built around sweet yet dark-sounding vocal melodies and some super original, borderline dizzying guitar work. Pay special attention to “Hall of Death,” which also features guitar work by Mdou Moctar, the Taureg psych-rock musician whose own 2021 album, Afrique Victim,  I also listened to a ton this year. — Mike Conklin

Key track: “Hall of Death”

black midi, Cavalcade

I have neither the credibility nor the technical vocabulary to write about this band with even a basic degree of eloquence, so let’s recruit some help. Tayyab Amin of The Guardian: A freakish parade of prog-jazz extremity.” Andy Cush of Pitchfork: “An avant-rock labyrinth of maddening intricacy.” Will Richard of NME: “Sonic scientists continue to confound.” Here’s what I can tell you: black midi is a band that was chartered by a group of prodigiously talented weirdos at the UK’s renowned BRIT School for the Performing Arts around five years ago. Cavalcade is their second album, and no two songs on it sound like they were devised by the same band. Which is very much a compliment. –Walker Loetscher

Key track: “John L”

Porter Robinson, Nurture

Porter Robinson has spent a good part of the last decade playing to the biggest of big-room EDM festivals with his exuberant, wide-eyed take on dance music. His latest, Nurture, however, shows his metamorphosis into a bonafide songwriter, who shows comfort in writing both pop songs and more muted, contemplative tracks. At the core of the record is a fight against self-doubt, Robinson coming to terms with mixed emotions towards success on the ultra-catchy “Get Your Wish,” and feeling like he’s wasting an opportunity on “Musician.” Ultimately, the albums charts Robinson’s process of coming to terms with himself both lyrically and sonically, resulting in an affirming send-off, “Trying to Feel Alive,” that sounds like a highlight reel of his entire career as he looks back proudly. — John Hill

Key track: “Musician”

Tick, tick … BOOM! soundtrack

Sending my condolences to The New Yorker because they got this one dead wrong. In this year of movie musicals — West Side Story, In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, Annette — the best of the bunch is actually the one that may have slipped under your radar, tick, tick… BOOM! Its singing-and-dancing supremacy is thanks in large part to star Andrew Garfield, an opinion not shared by the aforementioned magazine. The movie is based on a show created by Jonathan Larson, the late composer of Rent. Garfield plays Larson with a surprising emotional resonance I first encountered when I saw the actor star in Angels in America on Broadway in 2018, and that here includes his superb singing. Don’t take my word for it, go ahead and listen to the birthday lament “30/90” or the climactic closer “Louder Than Words.” Whereas movie soundtracks can often be poor substitutes for Broadway cast albums, this one is the rare exception to the rule. But go ahead and give the movie a watch on Netflix first (watch out for the Sondheim Easter egg) — you’ll appreciate the album much more afterwards. — Alex Lauer

Key track: “30/90”

Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee

To say that it’s been a big year for Michelle Zauner would be an understatement. In April, the Seoul-born, Oregon-bred artist released a memoir, Crying in H Mart, that expanded on an essay of the same name she wrote for The New Yorker in 2018. It debuted at no. 2 on the best-seller list and landed up on a slew of “best books of the year” lists over the last month. Then, two months later, she released Jubilee, her third album, and the one that would catapult her to genuine, late-show circuit and four-night-residency-at-Brooklyn-Steel stardom. The album is a sweeping departure from 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet: gone are the shoegazy, almost meditative riffs of tracks like “Road Head” and “A Diving Woman,” replaced by tunes with more ambitious instrumentation and song structures. The glittery lead single “Be Sweet,” co-produced by Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing, is pure ’80s synth pop, while “Kokomo, IN” is an old-school ballad built on twangy guitars that recall the likes of Lucinda Williams or Neko Case. Zauner has talked at length about the fact that she sought out music theory and piano lessons before writing the album, something she long resisted because she thought it would suppress her instincts as a songwriter. Instead, it’s allowed the relatively singular sound of her earlier work out of its cage, resulting in an album that comfortably tiptoes the line between her humble indie beginnings and the kind of radio-friendly pop rock that has quickly rendered her a household name. — Walker Loetscher

Key track: “Kokomo, IN”

The Armed, Ultrapop

I’m going to let Dan Greene, who is part of this musical collective (which used to record anonymously), describe his own band: “It is a joyous, genderless, post-nihilist, anti-punk, razor-focused take on creating the most intense listener experience possible.” Fair enough. It’s also frequently chaos, but when it lands it can recall Converge, Queens of the Stone Age and the noisier parts of Sonic Youth. Ultrapop is an odd name for a record that lacks, well, hooks, but it’s certainly something that’ll stick in your head. — Kirk Miller

Key track: “All Futures”

Yola, Stand For Myself

Yola’s Stand For Myself, produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, does feature some straightforward country tracks, like “Diamond Studded Shoes,” inspired by the hypocrisy of former British Prime Minister Theresa May calling for austerity while wearing the titular footwear, and the excellent kiss-off “Whatever You Want,” a vocal highlight that sees her belting over a pedal steel guitar. (“I thought I would be alright, but I’m not gonna stay and fight with the good ol’ boys, cause good ol’ boys will have you beggin’ and pleadin’,” she sings on the latter, alluding perhaps to the Southern white men we’ve all come to associate with the genre.) But it also finds the talented 38-year-old leaning hard into other sounds, like smooth R&B (“Like a Photograph”), doo-wop (“Great Divide,” another standout vocal performance), pop and even disco (“Dancing Away in Tears,” a co-write with Auerbach and Natalie Hemby that sounds like a cover of some long-lost Bee Gees cut). — Bonnie Stiernberg

Key track: “Diamond Studded Shoes”

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