Despite (or maybe because of) limited touring schedules and scaled down live performances, 2021 was a fantastic year for musical releases. We saw some promising new talent with artists like Julien Baker's Little Oblivions and some artists we remember fondly like Weezer with the OK Human LP. But this isn't a list of that type of music. This is a list of popular music. Stuff that people besides myself wanted to listen to. So buckle in as I stifle my inner hipster and try to find something nice to say about these popular releases of 2021.
10. Drake: Certified Lover Boy
I know I'll get heat for putting this at the bottom of the list. Drake fans are...fanatic. Just ask my fellow founder Spence (sorry bro). But, I actually think this album was overcriticized. Champagne Poetry was a strong opener showing off some of the best of Drake's easy-listening flow bars to date. It does feel like a high bar was set early on that wasn't met for the rest of the album but overall it makes for good background music. If this was on at a party there's nothing on here that I would crank up the volume for but nothing I would turn it down for either. In a word: inoffensive (except for that lesbian bar that's equal parts controversial and cringe.)
9. Justin Bieber: Justice
This is a weird one. With a few exceptions the non-deluxe version of this album sounds like praise and worship music gone pop. Peaches and Lonely stand out as an evolved version of Justin Bieber compared to the formulaic and vapid tracks that surround them. But then there's the deluxe version of this album which is head and shoulders above most of Bieber's former discography! I've never been more conflicted about a project than when I listened through this. If I could have my way, this album would replace most of the regular track listing for the songs from deluxe edition. Basically, I hate it and also I love it.
8. Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever
Billie's second studio album proves that the success of her first was no fluke. However, it does feel like this album is a little one-note. Billie and Finneas lean hard into the soft, breathy, and dark tones they're known for, but without some energy to balance it out it feels a little repetitive. That being said, its is weird, inventive, and most importantly, its really good. I hope for music's sake she keeps pushing boundaries.
Do you like Adelle? Then you'll love this. It seems very fitting that Adelle numbers her records because they feel a little bit like that; the next set of songs in a consistent series of albums. Adelle leans heavily on her competency as a ballad writer here as always but there are a few stand-outs. Strangers By Nature is an extremely rich syrupy composition with early orchestral-pop era voicings. My Little Love is smooth and rich and dark. Songs like these and All Night Parking show us that Adelle may be slowly slipping some complexity back into our pop and I'm not upset about it.
6. Lil Nas X: Montero
Who isn't excited about Lil Nas X? He somehow manages to trigger all the controversy of a Marylin Manson type without having done anything truly controversial at all. Liking this album is almost an investment into the future of the genre. Besides the hits, there's nothing too outstanding about this album. Its a good pop album. And that's what's so exciting about it! By creating a decent pop album Lil Nas X has staked his claim in the space and I'm sure we'll see some truly revolutionary music as he grows into the role he's snatched for himself.
5. Kanye West: Donda
Is it pretentious and over hyped? Yeah...Its Kanye (or Ye) after all. This album feels like Kanye took some of his favorite production pieces from whatever futuristic mp3 vault he stores ideas in and hurriedly threw some lyrics and features over them to make up an album in a week. But here's the thing about Kanye: even his half formed ideas have at least a nugget of pure gold in them. Half the tracks feel like great buildups to a song you never get to hear. But they're still great build-ups. The entire record is propped up on West's unmatched production chops. And those chops are enough to carry even his weakest ill formed projects.
4. Olivia Rodrigo: Sour
For anyone not in highschool, It might be hard to relate to songs about learning how to drive and losing your first love. But despite the juvenile subject matter, Rodrigo's song-writing skills are anything but. This album is the embodiment of pop mentality. It bounces from sultry ballads to pop-punk and everything in between with some serious skill. I'd put any song on this record against any song from Taylor Swift's discography.
3. Doja Cat: Planet Her
I can't even call this album a guilty pleasure...I unironically love it. I have a few skips don't get me wrong, but the world music influences infuse every song with groove and Doja Cat's eccentric but smooth flow on top make it hard to listen without dancing. Rihanna better hurry up and put something new out soon because this album is filling that empty spot in my heart pretty damn well. I don't know what the hell Doja Cat is up to in TinyChat but her work in the studio is undeniable.
2. Willow: Lately I Feel Everything
As someone who lived through the peak of the pop-punk era, I feel a little pandered to by this album. Cleary, someone has been listening to All Time Low, Sum 41, and even some Nine Inch Nails. Speaking of NIN, the harder industrial sounds of this album are a little hard to take seriously coming from a celebrity's kid but they're well executed and that makes it hard to criticize. All in all, I can't be mad that the type of music I grew up on is being re-packaged for a younger generation. I'm excited to see what these youngsters do with it.
1. Silk Sonic: An Evening with Silk Sonic
This is it. That point where pop music heads and hipsters alike can agree. This album is a total throwback to Motown, Funk, and Soul. It's a love letter to all the best parts of the type of music that used to chart. I'm so happy that this got the recognition it deserved. I would've listened to it anyway but it's exciting to know that more artists will be emulating this style after seeing the success that Silk Sonic has garnered