The 20 best albums of 2021

by Ryan O’Connell, India McCarty, Giselle Libby and Jacob Hafley
Foreword by Ryan O’Connell

With another year, comes another crop of great music. 2021 produced some of the most interesting music in recent memory: Lorde took ass pics, Kacey got divorced (from her husband and country music), and Lil Nas X gave everything we needed and more. From breakout LPs to fantastic comebacks, here are Alternatively Pop’s picks for the best albums of 2021.

1. Solar Power – Lorde

by Ryan O’Connell
They say great work is often divisive. If that is the case, Lorde’s Solar Power certainly earned its spot on this list. While divisive, Solar Power undeniably captures the essence of a generation lost. Lorde, at just 25, is a part of a generation that is facing much more than those that came before it. Solar Power beautifully weighs those fears and concerns alongside the brighter, more joyful moments of youth. The record captures the complexities of being a 20-something in the 21st century, swinging from anxieties of climate change and the future on songs like ‘Fallen Fruit’ and ‘Stoned at The Nail Salon’ to more “fuck it, let’s enjoy life while it lasts” sensibilities on the record’s title track. It doesn’t speak for everyone, but for those who know what it feels like to be a “prettier jesus,” Solar Power is perfect.
Essential Tracks: ‘Big Star’, ‘The Man with the Axe’, ‘California’, ‘Fallen Fruit’

2. Sour – Olivia Rodrigo

by India McCarty
It was the album heard ‘round the world, and for good reason. Disney star Olivia Rodrigo released her debut album, Sour, and instantly transfixed the internet with her real and raw descriptions of heartbreak. From cheerfully taunting boys who broke her heart, to tearfully wondering what went wrong, Rodrigo covers the highest highs and lowest lows of a teen breakup. What makes this album so special is how relatable it is for fans all over the world, even as Rodrigo writes hyper-specific accounts of her own relationships. With a dozen broken records under her belt and plenty of awards heralding her as artist of the year, Rodrigo is well on her way to becoming one of the biggest names in pop music.
Essential Tracks: ‘drivers license,’ ‘good 4 u,’ ‘deja vu’

3. Montero – lil nas x

by Giselle Libby
It’s no secret that Lil Nas X is special. He’s a master marketer with a sense of humor that connects him to his fan-base like no other, but his debut album proves that on top of being loveable; he’s a truly inimitable artist. Throughout MONTERO, Lil Nas makes confident promises of success and delivers on them all. On top of the unmatched energy his vocal performance brings to the table, it’s worth noting the masterful production throughout the album, executed by producer duo Take A Day Trip. Overall, it’s an impressive autobiographical debut; equal parts playful and earnest, and a true testament to Lil Nas’ importance in the music industry. 
Essential Tracks: ‘DEAD RIGHT NOW’, ‘INDUSTRY BABY (feat. Jack Harlow)’, ‘DONT WANT IT’

4. Sling – Clairo

by Jacob Hafley
After breaking through in 2018 with ‘Pretty Girl’, her debut album Immunity, and the  subsequent touring supporting it, Claire Cottrill felt lost in her stage moniker, Clairo. The  struggle between onstage versus offstage, childhood versus adulthood, and companionship  versus solitude, resulted in a thesis statement on maturity, love, loss, and responsibility: Sling. It  begins with a note: “I’m stepping inside a universe designed against my own beliefs.” What  follows is 45 minutes of collaboration with mega producer Jack Antonoff that occurred in the  secretive Allaire Studios located in upstate New York. Inspired by her dog Joanie (named after a  certain Joni Mitchell), Sling can be read as an attempt to show maturity by reference both  lyrically and sonically to the Laurel Canyon-archetypes of yesteryear. However, it shines in its dichotomy alongside Immunity. Songs like ‘Blouse’ cut deep with lyrics as subtly defining as “Why do I tell you how I feel / When you’re too  busy looking down my blouse”, or “Mommy, I’m afraid I’ve been talking to the hotline again”, from ‘Just For Today’. While Sling wasn’t the album many expected after the bedroom indie pop of ‘Sofia,’ ‘Bags,’ and ‘Closer To You,’ Clairo proves herself to be more than just a girl onstage going through the motions – she’s Claire Cottrill, and she’s here to stay. 
Essential Tracks: ‘Harbor,’ ‘Reaper,’ ‘Partridge,’ ‘Little Changes’

5. Happier Than Ever – Billie Eilish

by Giselle Libby
When making Happier Than Ever, Billie Eilish was barely a legal adult and carried arguably one of the highest expectations for a sophomore album in music history. Instead of letting this pressure crack her, Billie did what only a great artist with a long career ahead of them is capable of: turned it into a powerful, unique, and timeless record. Happier Than Ever depicts the reality of being a young, uber-successful artist in the 21st century while managing to not isolate listeners who are looking for relatability. Although this reality is gut-wrenching, it’s presented through a dazzling lens, sparkly and grandiose to match the old Hollywood inspiration Billie drew from. With a sophomore album with multiple career highlights, it’s clear that Billie’s talent is unwavering and unlimited. 
Essential Tracks: ‘Happier Than Ever,’ ‘Oxytocin, ”Getting Older’

6. Planet Her – Doja Cat

by India McCarty
Doja Cat is an undeniable pop star. She hits the mark every time, from performance choreography to constructing hits destined to blow up on TikTok. With Planet Her, she goes bigger and better, with crazy-catchy hooks that will stick in anyone’s brain. Her lyrics reflect her public persona: utterly unbothered by any and all men in her path. What makes every track on Planet Her notable is Doja’s delivery. She switches from rapping to singing and back again effortlessly and pulls off cartoonish vocal interjections like no other artist could. Even as she raps at a mile a minute, she never seems to break a sweat.
Essential tracks: ‘Kiss Me More (feat. SZA),’ ‘Get Into It (Yuh),’ ‘Ain’t Shit’

7. Home Video – Lucy Dacus

by Jacob Hafley
Lucy Dacus’ third album is a supreme example of an artist taking you by the hand and telling you their story by showing you all of the intimate details firsthand. From attending Vacation Bible School in the self-explanatory ‘VBS,’ to sneaking out for a love in ‘First Time,’ Dacus invites you to sit down in the front row as her home video plays out the story of growing up in the religion-ridden youth culture of the 2000s. The centerpiece of the album comes in ‘Partner in Crime’, a track about advantageous deceit during your youth. Dacus employs autotune, which seems like an outlier to  the acoustic synth reflections of the record, however it holds justice to the rest of the songs – “I wanna run my fingers through you, you say nobody understands you like I do” holds itself as one of the boldest recollections on record. Home Video works by proxy of Dacus’ ability to command a listener – by the end of closing track, ‘Triple Dog Dare,’ it’s not just Dacus’ story. It’s yours too. 
Essential Tracks: ‘Partner in Crime,’ ‘Hot & Heavy,’ ‘Thumbs,’ ‘Brando’

8. To Hell With It – Pink Panthress

by Giselle Libby
In 2021, some artists are writing songs in hopes they go viral on TikTok. But then there’s pink pantheress – whose music simply needed an unconventional platform to connect her special style of music to the world. Her debut mixtape, to hell with it, is a collection of soft, but mighty, love letters that last no longer than 2 minutes and 33 seconds. Riding the wave of Y2K nostalgia, the British singer-songwriter and producer made a name for herself by engaging those seeking a comforting, yet new and inventive, soundtrack to match one of the most divergent years in history. 
Essential Tracks: ‘Just for me,’ ‘Nineteen,’ ‘Passion’

9. The Yearbook – Baby Queen

by India McCarty
Another standout debut album, Baby Queen’s The Yearbook is a unique blast of perfect pop songs. The artist writes about heartbreak with an unflinching honesty, unafraid to bare every messy thought. She pairs these lyrics with infectious melodies made all the better by the top-notch production. Every song feels like something that would play in a coming-of-age movie while the main character drives down the road with the top down. With an opening act slot on the European leg of Olivia Rodrigo’s upcoming tour, Baby Queen is poised to become one of the new big names in pop.
Essential Tracks: ‘Dover Beach,’ ‘You Shaped Hole,’ ‘Raw Thoughts’

10. If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power – Halsey

by Ryan O’Connell
For years, Halsey has been trying to make deep, complex concept records. For years, she has been coming up short. On 2020’s Manic, she essentially forgo concept, making the concept herself, and made a great record while doing it. On 2021’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, Halsey returned to high concept, but this time she stuck the landing. Dealing with “the joys and horrors” of pregnancy and childbirth, the record saw Halsey experiment with darker themes and sounds than she ever has. Joined by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the record roars to life with a fearless take on both act’s sounds that ultimately yields some of the best – and most important – work of Halsey’s career.
Essential Tracks: ‘Easier Than Lying,’ ‘Whispers,’ ‘The Lighthouse’

11. History of a Feeling – Madi Diaz

by Jacob Hafley
Madi Diaz opens her fourth studio album with a classic example of pure catharsis – in her own  words, she wants to “rage to erase everything and [she’s] not afraid.” History of a Feeling is a record that is emotionally on fire and sonically leaves you in a blaze: you can feel the quiet fury as Diaz  succinctly states, “I hope you fuck her with your eyes closed and think of me.” With her own version of a song that was previously penned for Kesha’s 2020 album High Road (‘Resentment’),  and a track that was just endorsed by girl group MUNA with a surprising club remix (‘Crying in  Public’), History of a Feeling is purposefully left unpolished in production, without the bells and whistles most have become accustomed to – it finds a place between unrelenting anger and  genuine heartbreak that taps into every listener’s heart. 
Essential Tracks: ‘Crying in Public,’ ‘Resentment, Nervous,’ ‘New Person Old Place’

12. Star-crossed – Kacey Musgraves

by Giselle Libby
Following up Golden Hour was arguably Kacey Musgraves’ biggest challenge in her career. Some argue Star-Crossed fell flat in comparison, but it was undeniably the record Musgraves needed to make in order to close out such an important chapter of life. In her most pop-influenced record yet, listeners receive more of a cautionary tale than an in-depth analysis of the songwriter’s difficult divorce. In songs like ‘breadwinner’ and ‘hookup scene,’ Kacey conveys the tough life-lessons she walked away with from her own heartbreak. It’s certainly not her best record, but it’s special in its own right and a supportive companion for those who need it. 
Essential Tracks: ‘good wife,’ ‘camera roll,’ ‘simple times’

13. Valentine – Snail Mail

by Ryan O’Connell
“Sucker for the pain huh, honey?” Lindsey Jordan, known professionally as Snail Mail, asks on her sophomore LP, Valentine. The question is ultimately the record’s mission statement. Across Valentine, Jordan wrestles with love, one minute yearning for it, the next, wishing it dead. Valentine sees love in all its various forms, from the highest highs to lowest lows, and every minute complexity in between. Bolstered by wonderful production, Jordan’s ruminations on love offer little clarity. Instead, they offer comfort for those who left confused by love’s brutal nature: you’re not alone.
Essential Tracks: ‘Ben Franklin,’ ‘Madonna,’ ‘Light Blue’

14. Simple, Sweet & Smiling – Kacy Hill

by Jacob Hafley
The second independent release from Kacy Hill, Simple, Sweet, and Smiling establishes an artist  who knows exactly who she is. Following last year’s direct vein of dreamy synth pop from Is It  Selfish If We Talk About Me Again, Hill set out to make music that “covers a lot of ground with how [she’s] felt over the past couple years.” What results is the story of anxiety establishing itself in relationships, and the ways to break out of the boundaries that seem so overbearing: Hill proudly states “I’m going all the motions, oh I gotta be / They say the storm will stop rolling” on single ‘Easy Going.’ The intense emotions associated with songs like ‘Caterpillars’ flow perfectly into ‘Mochi’s Interlude,’ aptly named after Hill’s cat. Even when listening to heavy lyrics, the album stays true to its title – it is simple, sweet, and smiling. 
Essential Tracks: ‘Simple, Sweet, and Smiling,’ ‘Seasons Bloom,’ ‘Easy Going,’ ‘The Right Time’

15. Long Lost – Lord Huron

by Ryan O’Connell
Lord Huron are perhaps best known as the band that made that song from 13 Reasons Why. However, with the arrival of their fourth record, Long Lost, that legacy feels even more insulting. A gorgeous, sumptuous record, Long Lost captures classic sounds of country, americana and deep roots that feels more like music you found on some vinyl from the 60s you found in your grandparent’s attic than on a streaming service. The warm sonic landscape the group puts together, paired with some wonderful storytelling, makes for an album that instantly feels like home.
Essential Tracks: ‘Drops in the Lake,’ ‘I Lied (feat. Allison Ponthier), ‘What Do It Mean’

16. A Touch of the Beat Gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun – Aly & Aj

by India McCarty
Aly & AJ’s 2021 album was long-awaited by fans; their first since 2007’s Insomniatic. The sisters have been regularly releasing singles and EPs in the previous years, but this was the first major body of work listeners had gotten in awhile. This album builds on the sisters’ throwback, synth-laden sound, but adds some Western twang to the mix. The former Disney stars have grown right along with their audience, maintaining their classic sound while tackling more mature topics in their lyrics. Forget the Jonas Brothers; this is the Disney band comeback you should be paying attention to.
Essential Tracks: ‘Slow Dancing,’ ‘Lucky to Get Him,’ ‘Don’t Need Nothing’

17. You Signed Up for This – Maisie Peters

by India McCarty
Singer-songwriter Maisie Peters dropped her debut album this year, a rollercoaster of emotions that takes listeners through every facet of a broken heart. The artist, who is the first name signed to Ed Sheeran’s Gingerbread Man Records, has been building up a following through the years with singles and EPs. YSUFT showcases Peters’ songwriting abilities, from constructing intricate melodies, to choosing the perfect tiny detail to add to a lyric that will break your heart. She’s also extremely prolific, regularly taking to TikTok to share snippets of new music. With the success of her debut, it’s safe to say Peters is on the way to star status.
Essential Tracks: ‘Villain,’ ‘Psycho,’ ‘Talking To Strangers’

18. Heaux Tales – Jazmine Sullivan

by Ryan O’Connell
Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales is the rare album that deals with the complexities of being a woman in a sex-positive world. The record fearlessly dives into the joys of women’s sexual liberation, and those fears that just won’t go away. Sullivan embraces her inner sexual being, but even more prudently, she wonders why there is always that little voice in the back of her head shaming her for it. For every song singing about wanting to “sit on it” or how “money keeps  that pussy wet”, there’s a moment where she stares directly at the realities of navigating sex as a woman in the 21st century. ‘Donna’s Tale’ sums it up best: no matter what, sex is always a transaction, and we all have our own tales to tell.
Essential Tracks: ‘On It’, ‘Pick Up Your Feelings,’ ‘Donna’s Tale’

19. Blue Banisters – Lana Del Rey

by Jacob Hafley
Three months after releasing three songs with no announcement or acknowledgement, Lana Del  Rey took to Instagram to state that Blue Banisters, her second studio album release of the year, is  “her story, finally.” She was right: Blue Banisters paints perfect the image of an artist who has gone through the cycle of sonic evolution, and who has come out wiser. The record, formerly titled Rock Candy Sweet, is a patchwork of songs old and new, some lifted from demos as far back as one of Del Rey’s most critically acclaimed albums, Ultraviolence. With songs that went  on to become surprising hits on apps like TikTok (‘Dealer’), and fan favorites (‘Sweet Carolina’), Lana assures both her listeners and herself that she  isn’t leaving anytime soon: “Don’t write me a letter, I’ll always be right here/Closer to you than  your next breath, my dear.” 
Essential Tracks: ‘Beautiful,’ ‘Dealer,’ ‘Thunder,’ ‘Sweet Carolina’

20. Am I Talking Too Much? – Oston

by Giselle Libby
Newcomer singer-songwriter OSTON claims a well-deserved spot with her second full project, Am I Talking Too Much?, OSTON’s lyricism is full of impressively sharp one-liners, satisfying sarcasm, and honorable vulnerability. There’s a song for any situation; toxic platonic relationships, the pressures of growing up, and the fear of falling in love. Am I Talking Too Much? is a guidebook on learning when to not take things too seriously and gaining the ability to spot those who underestimate one’s tenacity. After such an incredible project, it’s safe to say OSTON is one to watch in 2022. 
Essential tracks: ‘Hypocrite!,’ ‘Lie About You,’ ‘Sour’

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