I abandoned Catholicism when I was thirteen, but this past November, at a brand-new Toronto venue still bathed in sawdust and smelling of new paint, I came as close to God as I ever have.

I was at my first concert since August 2019, the last show on Bleachers’ Take the Sadness out of Saturday Night tour. Jack Antonoff and crew leapt and thrashed around onstage, outlined in vivid blues and reds. I sang along, clutching my best friends’ hands, holding onto every word as gospel. My mask damp with tears and sweat; my elbows sharp and unafraid to shove through the crowds of mulleted, denim-clad twenty-somethings. I listened to the thousands of voices screaming, I’m in love and you’ve got me, runaway. I thought, however clichéd the idea, this is what music is all about. 

I’m writing this from a decidedly less optimistic perspective, now that half my concerts scheduled for 2022 have been canceled due to…well, you know. Still, music is a religion, whether it’s live or not, and despite an onslaught of cultural and sociopolitical atrocities, it was a strong year for it. I am a person who loves to complain and express my opinions loudly, so I figured I should share with you my favourite albums of 2021. These fifteen records—ranked lowest to highest—aren’t necessarily the best, but they’re the ones I listened to on the bus to work and on furious bike rides; while wandering through familiar neighbourhoods in the midsummer dusk; when I was at my breaking point and when I was happier than I’d been in years. These are the albums that banged around in my head for ages and refused to leave. Enjoy, and happy listening!

(Before any Swiftie legionnaires act up in my DMs: I see you, I hear you, I am you, but this does not include Fearless and Red (Taylor’s Versions), as they are technically re-releases. Thank you.)

15) Blue Banisters – Lana del Rey

Despite her many flaws as an individual (or maybe because of them?) I have a deep, enduring appreciation for Lana del Rey. I love how she seems both self-absorbed and painfully self-aware, playful but deadly serious. This sprawling record encompasses her skills as a songwriter, paying respect to the glamorous character studies and Old-Hollywood parables of her older work, but ultimately looking beyond them, towards a calmer and more personal artistic future. I also enjoyed Lana’s other 2021 release, Chemtrails over the Country Club, but Banisters wins with its richer sonic palette. It never strays too far from classically Lana piano ballads and smoky torch songs, but Blue Banisters has a uniquely freewheeling and open-minded outlook, ultimately redefining Lana del Rey both as a musician and a myth.

Best Tracks: Blue Banisters, If You Lie Down With Me, Dealer, Thunder

14) Let Me Do One More – illuminati hotties

Buoyed by sugary vocals, irreverent lyricism, and a fascination with love as an act of resistance, Sarah Tudzin’s second project sounds like a riot grrrl record for the chronically online. Tudzin’s background as a producer and recording engineer allows her to deftly experiment with elements of shoegaze, punk, and bubblegum pop—often all in the same song. Although Tudzin is excellent at juxtaposing scathing rants about capitalism with addictive pop hooks, Let Me Do One More is also a deeply tender album. It explores the sweetly mundane aspects of modern love, making a passionate argument for the importance of vulnerability in both friendships and romantic relationships. 

Best Tracks: Pool Hopping, Threatening Each Other re: Capitalism, Protector, The Sway

13) Absolutely – Dijon

Though barely half an hour long, Dijon’s debut album weaves together dozens of fascinating, yet simplistic story fragments in the time-honoured tradition of Americana. Blending folky guitars, whimsical synths, and the studio chatter of his friends, the LA-based songwriter creates a rich tapestry of human relationships that draws equal inspiration from Frank Ocean and Bruce Springsteen. The record skillfully bounches between raw breakup songs and mellow slow jams, but the real attraction is Dijon’s voice, a raspy howl that’s both consistently gorgeous and painful.

Best Tracks: Many Times, Annie, The Dress, Talk Down

12) Take the Sadness out of Saturday Night – Bleachers

I couldn’t start this article off by rambling about finding God at a Bleachers concert and not include this album! Jack Antonoff might have made his name by producing for every main pop girl under the sun, but his Bleachers work demonstrates an enduring dedication to earnestness and rock ‘n roll. Saturday Night is his strongest solo project yet, the lyrics knottier and more self-conscious than usual. His enthusiasm for big 80s sounds and Springsteen homages remains the same, as do the overarching themes of love, faith, and the feeling of making music. It’s a perfect record for this era of my life—the post-adolescent years, uncertainty and fervent joy beating against one another.

Best Tracks: Chinatown, Secret Life, Don’t Go Dark, 45

11) Heaux Tales – Jazmine Sullivan

Darkly funny and surprisingly patient, Heaux Tales delivers an incisive manifesto on sex, romance, and womanhood in this modern world. Sullivan shows off her dizzying vocal talents in this handful of pristine slow jams, which are connected by addictive spoken-word interludes about the acts of desperation women commit in order to feel beloved. While raunchy lyricism and expression of female sexuality is nothing new in R&B, Heaux Tales uniquely considers how this so-called form of empowerment affects our self-esteem and our relationships to other women. The plural title is crucial: this record is, at its core, a patchwork of solidarity.

Best Tracks: Pick Up Your Feelings, Put It Down, Lost One, Girl Like Me

10) Planet Her – Doja Cat

I almost wasn’t going to include this record because I have an individuality complex, but it’s so insanely catchy, it makes me actually angry. There’s been plenty written about this album already, so I’ll be brief: Doja Cat is probably the most versatile female rapper working today. She’s hilarious, sharp-tongued, and completely unashamed, a trickster goddess who makes everything look easy. Nearly every song on Planet Her is an aggressive earworm, juxtaposing Doja’s clever yet lackadaisical bars against stellar production. Best listened to while working out and/or being hot.

Best Tracks: Get Into It (Yuh), You Right, Been Like This, Options

9) Colourgrade – Tirzah

Intimate yet abstract is Tirzah’s game. Colourgrade is quietly sensual, inviting in its obscure simplicity—listening to it feels akin to sinking into a warm bath. It’s less polished and pop-oriented than her previous efforts, leaning further into a meditative style of R&B with darker, more interesting electronic textures. This record is about making the record; showcasing Tirzah’s interest in processes of experimentation and creation, rather than the final output.

Best Tracks: Tectonic, Hive Mind, Send Me, Sink In

8) Home Video – Lucy Dacus

Sad white girls everywhere were losing their minds about this album when it was released back in June, and for good reason! While it’s hooky and meticulously crafted, Home Video could sound like any solid indie rock record if it weren’t for Lucy Dacus’s precise, novelistic songwriting. This album chronicles her childhood and adolescence—wrestling with her spirituality, her sexuality, assorted traumas, and plain teenage loneliness—without a hint of retrospective shame or annoyance. Her voice goes down like a spoonful of honey, mellow and engaging even when she’s singing about bursting an abusive parent’s eyeballs with her fingers.

Best Tracks: Hot & Heavy,  First Time, VBS, Thumbs

7) Ignorance – The Weather Station

I don’t know about all of you, but climate anxiety has consumed my every waking moment. Fortunately, Ignorance has been instrumental (pun intended!) to me as a guide through this intense feeling, encompassing the beauty, terror, despair, and foolish optimism that comes with acknowledging the irreparable way our world has changed. Accompanied by a full orchestra, Tamara Lindeman’s dense combination of jazz, folk, and 1980s baroque pop results in a dramatic, feverish record whose rhythms stick in your mind. Although The Weather Station excels at describing apocalyptic premonitions and the erosion of the natural world, Ignorance is also surprisingly personal, and even a little bit hopeful.

Best Tracks: Robber, Tried to Tell You, Parking Lot, Heart

6) Mercurial World – Magdalena Bay

Like Planet Her, this record is so catchy it’s genuinely infuriating. Spacey, effervescent, and tailor-made for the TikTok generation, Mercurial World sounds as if Grimes (pre-Elon Musk), Charli XCX, and Caroline Polachek raised a baby together. I’m weary of the depressing, downbeat aesthetics of current-day mainstream pop; Magdalena Bay offers a delightfully bubbly antidote. Inspired by literally everything—from house music to 1980s Japanese pop, nightcore to Britney Spears—Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Levin craft twinkling and intricate synth soundscapes that I’m just dying to hear at the club. 

Best Tracks: Dawning of the Season, You Lose!, Chaeri, Domino

5) Sling – Clairo

I want to apologize for all the mean things I’ve ever said about Clairo’s music. I used to write her off as just another generic indie pop industry plant girl, but Sling blew me away—I even have a new appreciation for her 2019 album Immunity. Sling is a refreshing album of layered harmonies and minor-key melodies that take notes from 1970s folk music without veering into pastiche. It’s soothing and invigorating at the same time, as if Clairo is gently washing my brain in cool water. Her lyricism is more specific and anxious than ever, echoing painfully familiar sentiments about mental health and aging: “Mommy, I’m afraid I’ve been talking to the helpline again,” she sings, and I burst into ugly sobs.

Best Tracks: Amoeba, Blouse, Harbor, Just For Today

4) The Turning Wheel – Spelling

The first time I listened to this album, my mouth was literally hanging open the entire time. It’s such a feat to create such a mystical progressive-pop record without being a complete Kate Bush ripoff. With her ethereal, pinched vocals and fascination with the gothic and arcane, it’s easy to compare Chrystia Cabral to Bush, but her dramatics could also fit right alongside the sound of Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles. The Turning Wheel is fascinated with both modern politics and arcane mythology: it weaves together fairy tales of the past, present, and future to create a funhouse mirror to reality. It’s wildly ambitious and theatrical, but Spelling pulls it off effortlessly.

Best Tracks: Little Deer, Turning Wheel, Boys at School, Revolution

3) I Know I’m Funny haha – Faye Webster

I constantly listened to I Know I’m Funny haha on the bus home from my summer job, enthralled by Faye Webster’s lilting voice and serene, melancholy blend of steel-pedal country and R&B. She sang about minimum wage, getting stoned, abortive attempts at romance, being bored and lonely, crying for no reason—an eerily precise reflection of my own life at the time. Like its title, this album is simultaneously sincere and ironic, tangling breezy lines about the mundanity of one’s life with piercing observations about relationship insecurities and self-loathing. Webster and her accompanists often lapse into meandering chorus refrains or bossa nova-inspired instrumentals, but the album never sounds boring. Instead, it’s luxuriously peaceful, as delicious and open-ended as taking any summer day off of work.

Best Tracks: Better Distractions, I know I’m Funny haha, Cheers, A Dream With a Baseball Player

2) Call Me If You Get Lost – Tyler, the Creator

In this followup to 2019’s IGOR, Tyler starts a love song with the line, “Awww, you look malnourished!” and it only gets better from there. Call Me If You Get Lost is a little less sensitive and heartbroken than IGOR or Flower Boy—Tyler often lapses into the grittier, more belligerent persona of his early works—but it’s arguably the liveliest, most self-aware, and most sonically interesting record he’s ever made. Tyler’s boundless creativity and comic genius is in full swing on this mixtape, and his ever-masterful production dips into so many genres it’s almost reductive to label this as a hip-hop project. Regardless, Call Me If You Get Lost is a brilliant thesis as to what Tyler, the Creator is all about.

Best Tracks: WUSYANAME, LUMBERJACK, SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE, JUGGERNAUT

1) Jubilee – Japanese Breakfast

Albums with exactly ten songs on them are very pleasing to me, especially when all ten of them are perfect. After releasing two gorgeous albums largely centered around death and grief, Michelle Zauner turns to joy—experiencing it, and desperately searching for it. This record is quintessentially Japanese Breakfast in its dreamy, keening tone, and Zauner’s lyrics are as blunt and heartrending as usual (“Hell is finding someone to love / and I can’t have you” makes me scream). With notes of shoegaze, psychedelia, and new wave, Jubilee creates a lush palette of sound that supports countless addictive, anthemic hooks without ever falling into pop cliché. I think every word of this album is permanently etched into my brain.

Best Tracks: Paprika, Be Sweet, Posing in Bondage, Savage Good Boy

HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: Soundblab.com
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