It’s September, the end of summer, and while there is still more than a quarter of the year to go before the new year, we here at The Manual feel it’s time to count our audio blessings. In fact, we’re counting 30 — 30 of the best albums released so far in 2021. Granted, with as fast as time has seemed to move, it’s hard to remember when some of these dropped in the gaussian past. But any record, of any genre, was eligible, provided it was released on January 1 or later. This is a subjective list. Lists, by their nature, are subjective. But from what we’ve seen (and what we’ve heard), these are the top albums of the year, and we’re certain most will remain by New Year’s Eve.
It seems like a decade has passed since Pure Heroine, Lorde’s 2013 debut record. Pairing hip-hop beats with New Zealand yearnings, she burst into the U.S. market as an iconoclast: a teen that sounded unlike anyone else and therefore had a future without precedent (Billie Eilish, anyone?). Much water has passed under the bridge, and her latest, Solar Power, shows a wiser-beyond-her-years Lorde both reflecting on her short, strange journey; a refined (and leaner) ear for catchy pop hooks; and plenty of youth left in the chamber. Sure, it’s a record you could listen to with your girlfriend or boyfriend riding shotgun; inoffensive and eager to please while sitting its backbeat deep in the pocket. But there’s plenty to enjoy while alone on a solo drive down the road.
We’re playing fast and loose with the word “album” — The Last Resort is technically a five-song EP — but it’s our list and if you don’t like it, you can fight us in the same seedy bar in which Midland would be right at home. The onetime Austin-based classic country revivalists are as whiskey- and sun-soaked as ever, singing plaintive songs that never verge on saccharine or phony. Released in July, its songs were written in the first flush of inspiration when its three founding members joined long before the subsequent Grammy nods and GQ mentions. Dusty recordings were brushed off and polished into a Western luster, with each track seemingly aglow under layers of pedal steel, neon light, and singer Mark Wystrach’s gentle twang. A beaut, certainly.
It’s a bleak point in rock history, with little of note. (No, Imagine Dragons does not count.) But Rodrigo went total Joan Jett for the opening and several latter tracks of her debut record, Sour, which was released in May. It’s super fun while avoiding the revivalist moniker through modern themes of social media and public pressure. While maintaining its lyrical continuity, Rodrigo effortlessly changes styles, moving to the piano and more in line with quirky indie-darlings like Regina Spektor. It’s fun, light, easy, and ever-changing. It also has a hell of a lot of production money behind it, and some up-tempo tracks, like good 4 u, sound like something Taylor Swift might have left well alone if she weren’t so consumed with owning the entire world. Rodrigo seems rough in all the right ways, a pop princess in the mold of what Rihanna is to hip-hop: unconcerned with being anyone’s role model, instead consumed with her own experiences and sailor-rough verbiage. It’s a notable work, fun enough to jump around to on the bed of a hotel room and at the next moment to reflect on while sipping a quiet drink at the bar.
We’ll say this about Morgan Wallen: He’s a real piece of work. But regardless of his substance abuse and documented use of racial epithets, Dangerous is a masterwork, the epitome of modern country music. Myriad studio musicians, songwriters, and locations contributed to this record. He was poised to become the next great country musician before it all came crashing down under his own hand. Dangerous is as much a product of Nashville as it is of Wallen himself. It opens ambitiously, slow-paced, measured, and confident, and it lays banger on top of banger in the country sense: Lyrics that turn on a dime, memorable melodies, well-structured songs. It’s a phenomenal work, which makes Wallen’s implosion and self-sabotage even more perplexing. What lies beyond 2021 for the artist is TBD, but this singular accomplishment certainly belongs on any year-end list.
At the time of this writing, Kanye and Drake (more on him later) are locked in a death spiral as to who will emerge as the ultimate leader of hip-hop in 2021. And so it goes. Kanye deserves to be in his own category: Big sounds, ominous intros, weird choices. For better or worse, no one has ever done it like Kanye has. For fans of his seismic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there seems an overlap, with stadium-sized beats, repetition of phrases, and his trademark vulnerability and introspection, the production equivalent of reading your diary at an open mic. Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore Kanye on top of the pile.
Call this one a symbolic add, and we’d be prudent to be skeptical, as Taylor Swift has played the victim many times, some times warranted and some as slippery as a snake. But as the story goes, Swift’s former mean ol’ record company wouldn’t sell her the rights to her early records. So she’s rerecording them. Fearless is the first album of its kind in such an epic battle between artist and label. Originally released in 2008, its new version dropped on April 9, and it reimagines the sophomore record from the perspective of today. Will it eclipse the original recording in popularity and plays, thereby weakening her former Big Machine and bringing it back to the bargaining table? Is it a mistake to fiddle with your own juvenilia (if one were to call it that)? Is this a harbinger of things to come, further empowering artists in their epic struggle against The Man? There are answers on all sides. But its epochal nature demands inclusion on any year-end list.
DJ Khaled is a hit-maker, full stop. So it’s not a coincidence that Khaled Khaled, released on April 30, feels more like a collection of singles than it does a continuous album. Should that penalize it in our list of mid-year greats? In our era of singles and songs played on repeat, it seems to be hardly worth a lower score. Like DJ Khaled’s previous work, the record pulls on the who’s who of modern hip-hop greats, from Migos to 21 Savage, Drake, Meek Mill, and at least 10 other artists we could mention if space were not a consideration. It’s expansive. It’s also repetitive — Khaled really wants you to know that this is the best music and that he is DJ Khaled. And that, in summation, is our only point against it: When everything is the best, there seems to be little to break up its pace. But for many, that’s not a problem at all.
You think you know country music. You do not know Walker Hayes’ version of country music. Another shoehorned addition to our list (another EP, this one six songs), Hayes once again lets his expansive mind wander and his tongue roll over produced beats, blending hip-hop to country. Granted, it’s not the “Three Chords and the Truth” twang. But then again, when Hayes gets on the hook, he more than holds his own. Hayes ain’t no spring chicken — he worked traditional jobs while being shunned by the Nashville Machine for years — but with his toehold secured, he’s too damn catchy to forget, whether it was 2018’s 90’s Country or his latest hit, Fancy Like, which is currently part of a national Applebee’s campaign as well as a top-10 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts (an incredible feat for a country artist in 2021) and a TikTok viral phenomena. And thus, his well-earned spot on this list. Of course, other songs, including the eponymous track, which features Jake Owen, are worthy on their own. More Hayes, please.
Again, these are wasteland days for rock music, but in that dry and dusty terrain, Greta Van Fleet shimmers. Is the Michigan-founded band a mirage or a savior for the genre? We don’t have a crystal ball. But what we do know is that the four-piece’s sophomore effort, The Battle at Garden’s Gate, shows both maturation and a leaning into its strengths. Vocalist Josh Kiszka sparkles, alternating between Rush-like octave changes and pure Freddy Mercury sex appeal. The sound itself remains planted in the prog-rock/Led Zeppelin realm, but the boys are no longer constrained to the three-minute, radio-friendly track lengths, and they’ll stretch to eight minutes or more on occasion, which opens up song complexity as well as opportunity for lead guitarist (and Josh’s brother) Jake Kiszka to explore the frets. Admittedly, for such a guitar-heavy band, you’re not going to find the electric virtuosity of a Van Halen. But then again, with all of its members in their early 20s, there’s still plenty of time to grow.
What do you make of Billie Eilish, with her oddly punctuated, left-field, completely infectious 2019 record When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? She was the it-girl, a wait-what-comes-next phenomenon. On July 30, we found out. Happier shows a remarkable transformation over the last two years of celebrity — less manic, replacing arty distraction with substantive, but retaining all her delicate instrumentation and completely charming melodies. It doesn’t thump; it dances along with slow grooves that show depth and maturation along with a refined pop ear. While Happier may be her next, its accomplishment means it will hardly be her last.
They say it takes a decade to make an overnight success, and Wilson, with her Thinkin’, is a 2021 breakout artist a long time coming. The Louisiana native has been grinding it out on the road and in Nashville for more than a decade, but it was her February release that has everyone abuzz. And that’s an apt descriptor: Her Southern twang voice has enough edge to clear-cut an acre of scrub pine, while the music has a bounce with which to keep a rhythm while the trees fall. At the time of this writing, the record is well on its way to going number one on the country charts — no small feat for a relatively unknown artist — but it’s well-deserved and years in the making.
Two words: The Boss. Jack Antonoff, AKA Bleachers, knows catchy indie pop (he did it damn well with previous band fun. as well as with Taylor Swift, Lorde, and others). But his featuring of Bruce Springsteen on Chinatown, the record’s first released song, put his mastery of pop on clear display, and bringing in a living legend was an inspired decision. The song is fantastic; the rest of the record is nearly as good with his funky production and the calling in of favors. At 10 tracks, it’s a tidy, tight record filled with electric drums, bells, and all means of studio magic that nevertheless fails to hide pop perfection.
There’s not a lot of real estate left uncovered by a rock two-piece following the White Stripes, but Ontario’s Whitehorse manages to explore its final frontier throughout its catalog. Is it rock? Certainly, but it’s also so much more, as the husband-wife duo up the production value and call in plenty of studio musicians to back up their creepy chord changes and meandering pace. While it never feels like drudgery, this is definitely a record to listen to in the rightmost lane, without rush. While we need to peg them into a single genre, Love falls into that ambiguous indie label in which the band is free to ramble and roam. We hope they never come to a fence.
Hear us out: There’s not much new in the new Chvrches record. But is that a bad thing? Their heavy synth electro-pop has been arresting from their 2013 debut The Bones of What You Believe. We’ve been ardent fans ever since, and singer Lauren Mayberry’s voice drives as forceful as ever. If anything, the disco beats are bigger, fuzz harder, and suddenly cut off, leaving her reverb-heavy plaintive appeals to echo around the space. If this is trodden ground, we’re in no hurry to leave.
Arenas in the West. That’s where Parker McCollum fits with his Texas-tinged country music. Everything is big: The lead guitar, his overdubbed vocals, the size of his flat-billed hat. McCollum both fits in with his Nashville peers and yet has that je ne sais quoi that distinguishes him. Maybe it’s the not-so-small rock influence (check out the guitar-driven, Bryan Adams-esque Falling Apart, for one). It’s said that debut records are relatively easy, since they’re comprised of all the best songs you’ve ever written. But with Cowboy as his third full-length, McCollum, at 29, only seems to be getting better.
Electro-pop this sparkly requires locales mired in deep, dark winters. That about sums up Eugene, Oregon, where driving force Michelle Zauner grew up. Jubilee is vibrant, with motifs dancing over and through others while rudimentary drums and Zauner’s self-harmonized voice drive the composition. She has the creativity and ear of Sufjan Stevens without being so shit on most of the other instruments. While some records are meant to be performed, the third record under the Japanese Breakfast name is a masterpiece of recording, technically interesting but never self-indulgent.
Can Drake reinvent Drake? Who’s clamoring for it? Drake is Drake, and people are thirty for more Drake, and so Drake struck the rock with his staff and out flowed Certified Lover Boy. The record, released September 3, was so layered in lead-up hype and merch drops that it’s hard, even now, to wade through and find a completely great record. But it’s there. With the world at his command, nothing is rushed; its samples were carefully selected; and his ownership of the genre all but assured. (Again, Kanye.) Lyrical lovers will appreciate his rising delivery and roving attention: Half-reflective, half braggadocio, there’s no one quite like Drake. With Certified, his reputation is secure.
Books can be written about how Kings of Leon breathed new life into southern rock. We won’t contribute to a poor summation. But we will say that When You See Yourself, released March 5, has everything up on which the band established itself: drums that build like galloping horses, Caleb Followill’s broken vocals that beg for release, and lead guitars that evoke large spaces and thousands of fans. There is not a band that can match Nashville’s Own when it comes to a mastery of the craft. Everything is rising in Yourself, and any rock fan should follow the Nashville four-piece’s direction.
We’ll note up front that this is likely the least-produced record on this wide-ranging list. That’s the point. It’s the record you want to play while on a long road trip across the Midwest, on I-40 headed west, looking out over 10 miles in any direction. They say that great music is made in the spaces between the notes, and that’s what you hear with this record: the crackle of the tape, the shuffle of feet in the background, wind across the mics, the rawness of each singer’s voice. Lambert especially shines on Waxahatchie, and it’s satisfying to hear on another track, after the last chord fades and she suggests they do another take the outright rejection: Everything is perfect in its imperfection. “My string was buzzing,” she said. “You brain was buzzing,” another replies. “That was great.”
Whether or not you believe Americans should deport Justin Bieber back to where he came from is irrelevant. It’s inarguable that the Canadian is a master of the pop genre, and even if he were crap, he’s got enough pull to drag in the best producers and featured artists to cover any sins. Justice finds the 27-year-old reflecting on his new marriage, on his international life, and his continual growth into manhood. Sure, sometimes his sampling can come off heavy handed — that Martin Luther King Jr. soundbite at the top is a little much — but he still produces an industry-leading product that carves out enough space for him to fully express his own wants, needs, and, most importantly, unanswered questions.
Groove at your own pace. Alfie Templeton is unhurried in his efforts to get your head nodding. He takes you along on his journey, in his eyes. Like Mikky Ekko or Borns, there’s a confident pace, a maturity that must come with a voice that can do whatever it wants. Heavy synth pads come in and out; Templeton’s voice is ever-present, a worthy target of a spotlight. It catches, hearkening to man-pop over the decades. Jameriquie.
The onetime garage rockers have built themselves very nice guitars. But their tones remain as crunchy as ever on Van Weezer, shirking off responsibilities and TK. Everything is feedback and big choruses and claps and hammer-ons coming over each other. It is a compendium of rock, across sub-genres. God, Weezer can be fun. This record is a ton of fun.
Anti-heroes aren’t supposed to be as popular as Church, who continues to do whatever he wants within the country genre regardless of industry trends. Technically, Heart and Soul are two separate albums, but both are noteworthy. Like fraternal twins, they were released in short order (April 20 and 23, respectively) but are completely distinct. Soul is just that: Church out there in the breeze, his Carolina twang chills out, it swings, it curls around like smoke. Heart, conversely, moves like Mellencamp rock, snare drum cracking on the two and four, pure rock with a Southern accent. All hail, Nashville’s anti-king.
Don’t be fooled by its name: Greatest Hits is hardly a best-of. Its robot dance tunes are certainly all worthy. Big, scary, haunting, and evoking the strobe and neon lights of non-pandemic times. Waterparks is the neo-pop answer to naval-gazing indie artists. The trio gets down and wants to get you down into the biggest, sweatiest dance party this season. No social distancing, the bass thumping through your internal organs, and possibly the influence of recreational drugs in your system. Its drops are so aggressive that some might suggest rock influence. We’re on the fence, but then again, TK.
Like that sports shoe banned by the NBA, Australia’s refusal to admit Tyler has only managed to further intrigue fans. He has obliged by producing a record with the musical creativity of Kendrick and the boasting of a young Jay-Z. It’s not an easy listen; one might feel overwhelmed the first time through. But Easter eggs abound; its span is unmatched in 2021.
Like Ryan Adams and other sharks who can’t stop swimming, Olsen has averaged a record a year since 2019, and has seven since her debut in 2012. Lark is a triple-disk; expansive and unhurried, filled with thick synth pads reminiscent of Berlin and the electronic ’80s. It sounds like an even-paced Tron soundtrack or like Stranger Things without the undertones. It’s beautiful, and its artificial hum offsets Olsen’s vulnerable, delicate voice beautifully. It’s worth a tall drink, feet up, and nowhere to go.
Coming out of a cancellation of national scope, Adams’ latest record can only be viewed through his past indiscretions. It’s remorseful, and yet it doesn’t bog down in apology. It moves through regret to classic Adams: lonely, watchful, and addressing someone just out of frame. There’s a reason his career has spanned decades and continues to intrigue. In the end, it all comes down to the work. Colors stands the test.
Atmospheric and heady, Rhye is a religious experience whether you’re devote, agnostic, or atheistic. His voice soars and fades, layers upon layers, and his brand of ethereal pop is a longtime favorite. For fans of Sade looking for reincarnation, Home is a promise fulfilled. But it’s not all penance and drudgery; there is ecstasy amid the smoke of incense, laid-back grooves that induce couch-plant. It’s a record you put on when nothing else is demanded.
Lord knows how you pronounce it, but the third record by L.A.’s LANY is here in all its electro-pop lushness. The three-piece is leaning in to its strengths, getting knee-deep into their sun-soaked roots. The root, of course, is singer Paul Klein, who embodies one’s 20s: longing, fresh love, with something substantive right around the corner. Certainly this record falls like chum into a rabid fanbase.
A cool salve to finish this list, Surfaces is back with ambient melodies and laid-back beats to send you home with the windows open. The modern equivalent of Sublime, the Texas two-piece isn’t rushing anything, slowly pushing up the sliders on their seemingly completely artificial music. There’s a guitar in there somewhere, and a hip-hop flow from time to time. But no one’s harshing anyone’s vibe. It’s a fitting farewell to summer, to 2021, and to a year filled with excellent music across the spectrum. You can hear a bit of it all in Pacifico.
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