My Best Albums of 2021

Maxine Thao
17 min readJan 27, 2022
“a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun” (2021) by Aly & AJ

One of the two hidden gems I was incredibly happy to discover, was the fourth studio album, commonly shortened to “a touch of the beat”, by nostalgic faves, Aly & Aj. While “Potential Break Up Song” is considered a nostalgic disney channel classic that has flowed in and out of the twittersphere consciousness for the past couple of years, the girls have revamped a new sound for themselves in the meanwhile that is sadly still being overlooked throughout the nostalgia revival. However, I personally gave this album a chance when I heard in pop music lover spheres that this album was incredible, and took their word for it. And you should definitely take their word and mine when I say that this album is to the T, the absolute perfect timeless summer album.

To put this album into a visual scene, when listening to it, you can feel the early evening warm, not scorching, sun and see the brightest reds and oranges with a touch of yellow in the wide open sky of the setting sun with light wind hitting your face in a car with the top down. You might even be on the beach, feeling sand between your toes, a knitted blanket over your legs, hearing a clatter of beer bottles and soft laughter of people surrounding you.

This album has built its own atmosphere so well with its cohesiveness of its 60s/70s Californian surf pop/rock inspired sound. However, it’s hard to pin down this album to just one genre, when there are likes of country, soft rock, and disco. Not to mention — my personal ideal amount of tons of saxophone, which I thoroughly enjoy. The album does a great job of being cohesive, yet the sonic and lyrical mixture of bliss, longing, freedom, grieving, and acceptance offers a never boring listen without feeling chaotic. This makes it such an easy album to put on no matter your mood; just put it on whenever you crave going on a little vacation to that world. As the whole album plays, you feel every color of each guitar riff, every drum beat in your heart, and every word so sincerely that by the towards the end of the album when the lyric “I just can’t stomach being your ex-wife” comes in, your young, single, and commitment-phobic self is thinking “wow, so true.”

While it is practically impossible for me to pick out favorite songs from this album, the pre-released single and opener called “Pretty Places” is easily one of my favorite songs released in 2021. A rare 5 minute single that seems longer than most short songs released these days, this gliding and airy track is welcomed to stay for as long as it likes. This heavily acoustic guitar track is THE road trip anthem, as it talks about getting wonderfully lost on the road and exploring all the world’s pretty places with someone you treasure so dearly. The floating instrumental and relaxed vocals put you under a trance and bring you under a bright blue sky and on limitless roads. Other highlights include the lively “Break Yourself”, the romantic 2am living room anthem “Slow Dancing”, the thumping “Paradise”, soaring “Listen!!!”, and the honest “Personal Cathedrals”.

“Life Support” (2021) by Madison Beer

Similarly to the aforementioned album, I discovered this other gem also from pop lovers’ appraisal. While I had heard of the name Madison Beer before, I had never actually heard her music and assumed she made some radio friendly, safer pop music. However, I was pretty stunned once I listened to this debut album, called “Life Support”. While the singles “Baby” and “BOYSHIT” were pushed (and actually are great, fun pop songs), this album surprised me by going into a much deeper direction and the amount of talent and effort that could clearly be heard by the first listen.

There are three main factors that make this album such a standout for me — which are her voice, the production, and the lyrical content. First of all, it is a shame that most people are not aware of Madison’s absolutely GORGEOUS voice. Her tone is so rich, and her voice can be playful and then sincere. While her voice alone is a huge main player in the album’s appeal, the quality of the production really shocked me. This album is turned on the knob of pop music heavier to the alternative side, compared to the expected bubblegum side. Even with her luxurious voice, she is not afraid to play with vocoders (a robotic-like vocal filter) and vocal chops (on one of my favorites “Sour Times”) on top of bass heavy tracks.

I think perhaps the most pleasantly surprising appeal for me for this album was the subject matter. Perhaps a subject that was alluded to in the title “Life Support”, Beer is incredibly vulnerable in this album by unabashedly talking about her fragile state of mental health. Tracks such as “Default”, “Effortlessly”, “Stay Numb and Carry On”, “Homesick” are hauntingly real tracks about a gut dropping awful mental state of survival. The unstable mental health is really the backdrop to the breakup that is also discussed in this album, and gives the breakup a lot more depth when we see the kind of fragility she is already in. This album is full of emotions through and through with no kind of sugarcoating.

My favorite songs from this album would have to be “Follow the White Rabbit”, “Effortlessly”, “Stay Numb and Carry On”, “Blue”, “Homesick”, “Sour Times”, “BOYSHIT”, and “Emotional Bruises”. While some of the lyric writing falls into cliches and some tracks like “Blue” and “Baby” are clearly drawn from the inspiration of Lana Del Rey and Ariana Grande respectively, for a debut album, this album as a whole is a great blueprint for her artistic sound and image. Madison Beer is at a wonderful artistic starting point with “Life Support” and is heading towards a great path where I’m anticipating her further potential being unlocked.

“If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” (2021) by Halsey

While being a former Halsey stan way back when and checking some casual news online, I found out that she was pregnant; after being aware of her previous miscarrage, her endometriosis, and her vocal desire to one day be a mother despite the odds against her, I was ecstatic at the news and so so happy for them. Then once I found out that their new album would be about their pregnancy with one of the most eye-catching album covers I’ve ever seen, a matching feature film, and a title as strong as “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power”… I was in awe and ready to dig in.

If you were to ever guess how a concept album about pregnancy called “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” with lots of rock/punk/alternative influence were to turn out…most would expect that to sound like a hot mess. Instead, the reality of Halsey and their collaborators have turned it into a mindblowing masterpiece that easily became her magnum opus (for now). While Halsey is no stranger to concept albums, she has never hit the nail harder than this album, where the concept is a topic she has been waiting her whole life to experience. And of course, being the way that they are, they explored all the parts of pregnancy that are beautiful, ugly, and frightening.

The equally exquisite songwriting and production are able to highlight each emotion and create its own world of genuine love, creepy terror, and outright anger. The album introduces its world with the eerie and damning “The Tradition” and “Bells in Santa Fe” with unsettling piano, a woman trying to escape misery, and the chilling repeated line of “All of this is temporary.” The first punk track comes in swinging on “Easier than Lying” with heart pounding drums throughout, rumbling loud guitars that build in the chorus with their yelling, and topping the eye widening intensity with police sirens at the end. A much needed smooth track called “Lilith” comes in with a simple beat decorated by Halsey’s eased voice and lyrics that simply flow so easily in a self deprecating way about herself and how she interacts with the world. The short track “Girl is a Gun” is the most fun and eccentric stand out song in the album in my opinion, as the production consists of quick pace electronic drums and game galactic synths with a higher pitched voice and fun melodies that almost resemble bubblegum pop? It comes out of left field but it somehow works so well with the rest of the album; it’s like a bite of freshness still with a sense of cool confidence about how they sing about how they destroy their own love life and partners because that’s just who they are.

“You asked for this” and “honey” are tracks that hit the perfect pop punk spot. I absolutely love “You asked for this’’ with its racing guitars that almost drown out her voice while they talk about not only just owning up to all your shit, but actually trying to change for your own sake, with the chorus’ deeply relatable line that I love being, “Go on and be a big girl / You asked for this now.” Meanwhile, “honey” is a pleasing classic pop punk track that describes a fun little fling with a girl as sweet as honey. Eeriness welcomes itself later on back into the album on “1121” and “Whispers” with that haunting piano sound, light accelerating beats, and every fear, doubt, and intrusive thought about having their own child swirls in her head. “I am not a woman, I’m a god” is arguably the most powerful song on the album that speaks for itself when they sing and yell “I am not a woman, I’m a god / I am not a martyr, I’m a problem / I am not a legend, I’m a fraud.” Something just ignites singing along to the chorus and relishing in your own power. The oddball “The Lighthouse’’ is a storytelling fantasy song about a siren that, naturally, lures in men to destroy them over an instrumental of cruising dirty guitars. The rare soft tracks “Darling’’ and “Ya’aburnee” are each delightful soft heartfelt love letters to their partner and child respectively, and offer such beautiful lines such as “But only you have shown me how to love bein’ alive” and “I think we could live forever / In each other’s faces cause I’ll / Always see my youth in you.”

If I had to pick favorites, my personal standouts would have to be “Girl is a Gun”, “Easier than Lying”, “Lilith”, “You asked for this”, “honey”, and “I am not a woman, I’m a god”, but the whole album is really such a well contained journey and entire experience where every song plays its part and does so stunningly. “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” is such a rare and special modern masterpiece that deserves all its flowers and then some.

“Red (Taylor’s Version)” (2021) by Taylor Swift

Now, this choice is definitely pretty biased, as Red (2012) is decidedly my favorite Taylor Swift album that I have consistently listened to, ever since I was an 11 year old girl. However, revamped production, improved mature vocals, and every scrap from Swift that she now decided to release has managed to somehow sit among the best.

“Red” (2012) is an exquisite album full of bruising pain, crushed expectations, false hope, and real hope. While this album has been known as Swift’s most eclectic album with the mix of country, pop, dubstep, and soft rock, I believe this was when she tore through her limits and created THE heartbreak album. The soaring soft rock opener “State of Grace” and the heart pumping drum based “Holy Ground” celebrate moments of love that was experienced, the country-rock-pop masterpiece “Red” that paints the highs and lows of love in color, the acoustic “Treacherous”, “I Almost Do”, “Sad Beautiful Tragic”, and “Come Back…Be Here” dripped in longing in mistakes, and the flashes of optimism with “22”, “Stay Stay Stay”, “Everything Has Changed”, “Starlight”, and “Begin Again”, are just some instances of all the different and erratic stages someone’s mind goes through after heartbreak.

With “Red (Taylor’s Version)” (2021), she dove more into the various worlds of heartbreak, including more details of the mess of a romantic relationship in “Better Man”, “Babe”, “I Bet You Think About Me”, and “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”, dealing with the grief of losing a young loved one on “Ronan” and the fear of loss of a mentally unstable loved one on “Forever Winter”, and of course the heartbreak with yourself that the world gives you by simply existing on “Nothing New”.

Previously released songs not on the original album but were made around the time includes “Ronan”, “Better Man”, and “Babe”. “Ronan” was a special release that Swift wrote based on a blog called “rockstarronan” where a mother blogged about her 4 year old child Ronan who passed away from cancer. It was released as a charity single and is a very precious but difficult to listen to song. The lyrics are full of details about Ronan from the blog and is beautiful yet brutally honest storytelling. The already released songs that were sold to country artists Little Big Town and Sugarland called “Better Man” and “Babe” had always been well loved by fans of Swift, but we all know there’s nothing quite like hearing the original intentions and emotions of the writer from behind. The simplified instrumentals of “Better Man” paired with Swift’s powerful vocals that scream sincerity instantly shot this song up to one of my favorites from the whole album; if you ever need to sing your heart out after deciding you’re done beating yourself up, this is the track to turn up loud. While “Better Man” is my favorite of these two, “Babe” conveys a similar feeling of finally putting your foot down but with a surprisingly playful and upbeat spin with subtle brass.

The female duet “Nothing New” with Phoebe Bridgers is a somber anthem that yet finds comfort in its relatability. This song encapsulates the struggle and depression that young women, specifically female artists, all go through. The general public love the newest and youngest ‘it girl’ when they arrive on the scene, until they eat them up for simply living their life in public view and spit them out to be left feigning for themselves before starting the cycle again. The grounding feeling that resonates so deeply with people that aren’t superstars is the impending and basically inevitable fear of knowing that as a young woman, your desirability will grow stale and you will be pushed to the side like chopped liver simply because of existing for a significant period of time. While Swift has opened up about these feelings in recent years, it’s shocking to hear these come from a 22 year old Swift being so prospective and seeing how all this fear of the future then has played out in the present. Bridgers was the perfect addition to this sorrowful track, as her delicate voice that sounds like her eyes are ready to release waterfalls any minute brings in a new level of melancholy in the second verse.

The first listen of “I Bet You Think About Me” blew me out of the water. The remorseless and snarky lyrics with one of the most blaringly country instrumentals she’s ever had on a song made this an instant favorite. With lyrics that include making fun of her ex’s prestigious upscale background, his hipster ego, and bragging about her hold over him… oh it’s clear as day how this did not get released in 2012, but I am beyond glad we have this in our hands now! If I had to pick one highlight, the closing lyrics where she gets everything off her chest about the most irritating tiny details is absolutely hilarious, especially with the delivery. It’s been months but I’m never not thinking about the “organic shoes” lyric.

“Forever Winter” is a journey through the emotions of this relationship between two loved ones where the narrator tries their best to save the other from their fragile mental state. It’s a heavy and deeply touching song that anyone on either side can instantly understand. I love how the emotions aren’t streamlined by the instrumental, that is mostly acoustic guitar with decorations of brass, an upbeat pop melody vocal line, and drums that drive urgency. The verses describe the narrator observing how someone they care about is losing their sense of joy, to the realization of their profound pain and the anxiety around taking care of them. Despite the dark subject, the pure love that comes through the specific line “I’ll be summer sun for you forever / Forever winter if you go” is so breathtakingly beautiful it makes me tear up if I think too much about it. It’s a pretty difficult song to fully process, but despite it, the acknowledgement of the stress and love of a loved one on the other side of mental illness and addiction offers its own type of warm consolation for listeners.

While personally I find the fun pure pop Max Martin & Shellback-led track called “Message In a Bottle” and the soft (yet harmonically stunning) duet “Run” ft. Ed Sheeran, the weakest of the vault tracks (and the album), “The Very First Night” is immediately in the running for her best pop song she’s ever made. Lyrically, I see this as the ‘happy’ version of “All Too Well”, with lyrical parallels between them including details such as dancing in the kitchen and significant car rides. The bouncy instrumental of a dancing rhythmic acoustic guitar, drums, and bass over a classic happy-go-lucky pop melody paints your face with a smile as soon as it starts. The underlying yearning of wanting to return to the magical honeymoon phase of a relationship and the genuine reminiscing prevent it from feeling any disdain of cheesiness.

Now for the grand finale, the fan-favorite, cult-classic, regarded frequently as Swift’s best written song, is the impromptu-made original version of track 5 of “Red”: “All Too Well (10 Minute Version).” The history and long ride “All Too Well” (2012) has been through runs deep. The first released “All Too Well” back in 2012 was placed at the coveted track 5, where Swift deems is always the most vulnerable track. It is clear from the first listen that her storytelling abilities shine bright in this song by taking the listeners through the whole relationship from magical beginnings to a destructive ending; her ability to paint a familiar scene with vivid imagery and detail is what makes this breakup song so special and dear to many, and for this long. However, with how beloved this song has become over the years, comes with fans who will not let go of this little detail that Swift let slip — that the original song was about 10 minutes long. Now that Swift gets to revamp each album with each re-release, the miraculous wish was granted. Somehow, after over a decade worth of hype for the original lyrics, it blew threw expectations that were already soaring high. Accompanied with the “All Too Well” short film, Swift reveals a deeper layer of pain and betrayal. Some points of interest include the magnified degree of the other’s hot and coldness, like in lines “He’s gonna say it’s love, you never called it what it was / ’Til we were dead and gone and buried” and “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath” out of many; but what I found the most shocking (and probably most people) the first listen was of course, the afore-undisclosed feelings about the large 9 year age gap between Swift and a certain ex. The deeply upsetting line “You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine / And that made me want to die” was a punch to the gut and put everything into a much darker perspective. All the aching, disappointment, and brokenness hurt this badly because the listener and now Swift realize how her naivety and inexperience by simply being almost a decade younger than her partner was being taken advantage of by an older man who pretends he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but does it anyways because it’s way better to try and mold someone who doesn’t know better than a woman his age that does.

The last full verse that opens with the kicker line “And I was never good at telling jokes but the punchline goes / “I’ll get older but your lovers stay my age”’ is my favorite, as it just bursts emotions of the last part of burning pain and still gives me the most chills. The whole song though feels exactly like that, as some of the new lines and melodies honestly can come across as sloppy, but in turn it provides an unfiltered rawness. The haunting outro of soft repetition ends with acknowledgement of the rollercoaster relationship, and it offers a surprising comforting closure that lays this story to a mellow rest. The production of the song is notably different from the country acoustic original instrumental, but it captures the raw and perspective emotion ideally. The atmospheric pop production with the familiar notes offers a sense of nostalgia and yet something refreshing. It feels like the transition of the original being a chilly autumn day to the current deep winter putting the final nail in the coffin to these sore re-lived emotions. While winter may be the darkest season, it’s over now, and Swift has already been in spring for some time now.

“Your Choice” (2021) by SEVENTEEN

Out of the two mini albums released this year by boy group SEVENTEEN, “Your Choice” is the definite favorite for me. You can read my review here, but the airy and pure hearted opener “Heaven’s Cloud” and each unit song, I’ve decided, are some of the top songs of their whole discography. Presenting three different vibes — the performance unit with the sleek and chic “Wave”, hip-hop unit with fun hyperpop “GAME BO1”, and vocal unit with the old school r&b ballad “Same dream, same mind, same night” — each play on the units’ strengths to create a balanced mini album.

“SOUR” (2021) by Olivia Rodrigo

Olivia Rodrigo, the biggest breakout star of the year that won over the hearts of fellow teenage girls to nostalgic adults, to really any living person who has ever felt a form of heartbreak, delivered the smash debut album titled “SOUR.” My full review is here, but her talent of unabashedly putting her entire emotions into piano ballads, acoustic confessions, and guitar driven punk teen angst anthems with clever song writing is something that anybody can see.

Honorable mentions:

“You Signed Up For This” (2021) by Maisie Peters
  • “You Signed Up For This” by Maisie Peters is a wonderful debut album from the British singer-songwriter. My favorites include “John Hughes Movie”, “Outdoor Pool”, and “Psycho”.
“333” (2021) by Tinashe
  • “333” by Tinashe is a great follow up to her previously released album “Songs For You”, especially emotionally. She has fully chosen herself, and presented with a freshness of her already amazing own take on progressive R&B. My favorites are “Undo (Back To My Heart)”, “Last Call”, “The Chase”, and “Pasadena”.
“LILAC” (2021) by IU
  • “LILAC” by IU was a much anticipated full album that lived up to expectations. An refreshing album that focuses on growth had everything from retro tracks, catchy hooks, breezy bubblegum pop, a soaring ballad, and heartfelt lyrics (as always). My favorites are “Lilac”, “Coin”, and “Ah Puh”.
“Don’t Call Me” (2021) by SHINee
  • “Don’t Call Me” by SHINee was also a highly anticipated comeback from the legendary veteran group. After the majority of the members spent their time fulfilling the mandatory military service, they were ready to come back with a perfectly crafted bang. While every song on here is genuinely excellent, my favorites would have to be “Kiss Kiss”, “Body Rhythm”, and “Kind”.

Cheers to the wonderful releases of the past year and to awaiting releases for all keeping us a little more sane!