The Best Albums of 2021
It's been some year, hasn't it?
2021 has brought us a deluge of brilliant albums, from huge comebacks by pop legends, through stylistic-U-turns from established acts, to incredible breakthrough debut albums. It's been a joy to listen to all the incredible music that's helped make this awful year more bearable. I've listened to 110 new albums in total this year, which made choosing my album of the year a difficult task - but thankfully, here at QSO, I had some good friends to help.
The QSO Albums of the Year is a list of the best ten albums released in 2021. The albums are chosen by myself, musician and graphic designer JC, photographer and filmmaker Con Divers, and Head of Audio Toni Oisin H.C. Each writer chose records that resonated with them this year. Together, we've compiled an alphabetical list of the best records of 2021. Read on to discover what makes each of these albums so special.
Home Video - Lucy Dacus
I haven’t visited my hometown for two years. By extension, I’ve not seen most of my family in that time, either. I can still remember vividly walking around the town in the winter, taking in the sights, not realising it would be the last time in so long I would see these sights. I thought of my hometown the first time I listened to Hot & Heavy, the opening track of Lucy Dacus’ stunning Home Video. The song is ostensibly about memories of an old friend, but more generally, it feels to be about the emotional effect of nostalgia. It makes me think of places I miss and the people who live there, of how I’d never want to move back but how I’d love to experience being there one more time. Or, as Dacus puts it, “when I went away it was the only option… it’s bittersweet to see you again.”
Home Video hits hard for me as a queer ex-Christian, with many of the songs (VBS and Triple Dog Dare in particular) being painfully relatable in their specificity. Every song here is painstakingly detailed and meticulously crafted to form its own microcosmos of unparalleled songwriting and artistry. Any conversation about the best songwriters of our generation must include Lucy Dacus. If you’ve ever felt any emotion at all, Home Video is mandatory listening. - AC
Draw Down the Moon - Foxing
Draw Down the Moon is an album about cosmic significance, death, debt, and isolation. And yet, in addition to all of that, it’s an album that revels in joy and release. The moment I knew I’d fall in love with the record was upon hearing the third track, Beacons. A joyous celebration of a song about coming out and embracing being bisexual, it feels absolutely huge, and you’re left with no choice but to be swept along in the freedom that singer Conor Murphy tells us of. Queer joy is a beautiful feeling to hear represented in music, and Beacons bottles that feeling perfectly. Hearing the progression from heartbreaking older songs like Night Channels and Rory to joyous, freeing anthems like Beacons and If I Believed In Love is just incredible.
While Foxing have always been known for their lyrics, Draw Down The Moon is their best written album yet, with stirring recurring motifs of fire, dancing, and celestial bodies guiding us through acoustic laments (the devastating At Least We Found the Floor), dancefloor-ready bangers (the unforgettable Go Down Together), and post-rock sound collage (the mammoth Speak With The Dead). Everything is greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve never heard another album quite like this one, and I know I never will. Foxing have made more than just the best emo album of the decade so far, but one of the most powerful albums about joy and loss ever written. - AC
I Became Birds - Home is Where
“No more victims! No more missing girls! Arm trans women!” screams singer Brandon Macdonald in the semi-viral TikTok that was my introduction this year to the world of Home is Where. While nothing quite so confrontational appears on the band’s debut album, the magnificent I Became Birds leads you from the band’s native Florida through the emo genre’s DC and Midwest heritage via Dylan, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea and harmonica heavy alt-folk.
Emotional Hardcore is a genre that seems perfectly primed, in this moment of history, to encapsulate the beautiful, swirling mess of joy, dysphoria and futile rage that is the trans experience. In Beck-style word salads, Macdonald leads us through tales of life, death and spiritual transubstantiation, of escaping the cults that possess us like poltergeists, interspersed with boomer-poking radical ideologies (“Cops are flammable - if you try!”). The holy grail of songwriting that, without explicitly saying so, just is about transness; an album that makes me yearn for the hardcore show, a front row full of queers singing “Look at all the dogs!” until we transcend our bodies and become birds. - JC
Mood Ring - Kississippi
There’s nothing that brings me quite the same joy as when a familiar face from the alternative music scene says “Fuck it, I’m going to be a popstar.” That’s what Philadelphia based Zoe Allaire Reynolds seemed to be announcing with last year’s single Around Your Room, a huge pop anthem whose hooky melodies, love-struck sentiments and gorgeous music video wormed its way into the gooey, feminine centre of my gay little brain. So I spent the first half of this year eagerly awaiting Kississippi’s second full album Mood Ring, whose cover art promised even more sticky, sweet romance than a bubblegum wedding ring.
Together with writing collaborators such as Illuminati Hotties’ Sarah Tudzin, Kissy delivers us tales of modern romance with a charming personality and infectious american drawl that sells every second, filled with the simple-but-genius romantic lyricism that hallmarks the best pop music. Producer Andy D. Park packs the album with huge reverby snares, fun poppy beats, joyous backing vocals and synthy counter melodies to nail the retro-pop vibe and create a record that sits comfortably as a cool younger cousin to major-label classics of the genre like 1989 or E•MO•TION. - JC
t.i.a.p.f.y.h. - Left At London
The debut full album from Nat Puff, former Vine star turned prolific indie-pop musician, follows on from her iconic Transgender Street Legend EPs, continuing to pick at the politically charged threads of transness and mental health via some of the most exciting pop production this side of PC Music.
After diving into the subject in last years incredible single 6 Feet, /@/ presents an album informed throughout by plurality, not just in its twin title tracks, (There is a Place for You Here and This is a Protest For Your Heart!!) but also in its unconventional genre skipping from hyperpop to hip hop and more; The Ballad of Marion Zioncheck, for example, is a touching and well researched biography-song of the Seattle congressman that feels stolen from some alternative universe where Sufjan got round to writing about Washington, concluding in a typically sharp observation about the treatment of mental health.
Nothing, however, can quite topple the ambitious, ten minute opener Pills & Good Advice for my personal song of the year; the kind of song that justifies its epic runtime by bleeding passion and production wizardry from every second; diverse, Gecs-inspired vocal processing, earwormy hooks and the magical build up of hand-claps and euphoric electric guitars as Puff finds peace in her madness through a personal hero’s journey of illness and near death experience. - JC
This Is How We Get Better - The Narcissist Cookbook
This album - which I discovered had been released while I was en route to meet a man about a sewing machine - had me trying not to cry in public by about three songs in. As I gayly soldiered on, I realised this would be no exception to the rule - The Narcissist Cookbook feels like listening to someone else’s diary; like you’re not sure you were supposed to hear this.
This Is How We Get Better is about recovering from mental illness and - with humour - the fucking slog that it can be. Mostly, I adore the candidness of it. I don’t really hear men talk about what they don’t like about their bodies, habits, and attitudes; feeling shy, feeling ashamed; I have to appreciate The Narcissist Cookbook for his unflinching ability to make tunes that guide you through the uncomfortable experience of another human expressing something they kinda don’t like about themselves.
But this comes at a cost. Functional Poetry delves into how his songs are “ever increasingly lists of [his] vices and fears”, and how he realises the self-flagellatory nature of it, in the same way we recognise self-hatred to have a narcissistic element. This active self-reflection on the album itself is typical of The Narcissist Cookbook. There’s a lot to love about this album. I like that you can hear his accent when he sings. I like the spoken-word interludes and how much his musical ability has improved since MOTH, his first album. Most of all, I love hearing how his attitudes towards himself shift and change as time goes on, and what strange part of his neurosis he fixates on in his art. - Con Divers
Death of a Cheerleader - Pom Pom Squad
Death of a Cheerleader opens with one of the best couplets of the year: “You said, ‘Open up your mouth and tell me what you mean’ / I said, ‘I'm gonna marry the scariest girl on the cheerleading team’”. It’s an unforgettable start to an unforgettable album, that blends forward-thinking pop with *ahem* brutal grunge, resulting in a record that wears its retro influences proudly on its sleeve but remains uniquely its own. Pick any verse at random and you'll find instantly quotable lines. Shame Reactions has one of my favourites: "Is there a way for me to kill the girl I wish I were?". Alternatively, take "I think I love you more than I am willing to try" from the breathtaking Drunk Voicemail. Every single line is that good.
Pom Pom Squad is the brainchild of Mia Berrin, who also handles the phenomenal creative direction for the album. It’s an incredible debut (following on from 2019’s brilliant Ow EP) that blows records by more established artists out of the water. With co-production by Illuminati Hotties’ Sarah Tudzin, Berrin creates a world like no other, masterfully going from furious punk (as in the show-stopping Lux) to dreamlike pop (the beautiful Forever) with ease. Some artists go their whole career trying to write a record half as great as this. With Death of a Cheerleader, Berrin makes it look easy on the first swing. - AC
Nurture - Porter Robinson
Porter Robinson is an artist that I didn’t really know by name, up until this year. He caught my attention in the run-up to Nurture’s release, when a friend and fellow journalist (Hi, Carrow!) recommended the album to me. As someone who grew up listening obsessively to artists like Passion Pit, I was taken in by the alternative, synth-pop stylings of Nurture pretty much instantly.
After falling in love with Nurture, I dug through Robinson’s somewhat limited back catalogue while I was chipping away at my undergraduate dissertation. Of course, I recognised a huge amount of his more famous tracks immediately, like Language, Lionhearted, and Sad Machine. It was weird uncovering old familiars, and putting a bleach-blond profile to the songs.
Something that really caught my eye – ear – when listening to Sad Machine was the use of vocal synthesiser software, VOCALOID avatar Miku Hatsune, which I had just spent the past year researching extensively in my academic life. Porter Robinson’s music came to me at a strange time in my life, in a sense: everything seemed to focus on the manipulation of voices, from the work I was doing, down to the music I was listening to. - Toni Oisin H.C.
Another Kill for the Highlight Reel - Save Face
Save Face have never been a band to shy away from the grandiose. Their debut album Merci was a concept record about addiction and mental breakdown, and their newest (and best) release, Another Kill for the Highlight Reel, is a horrorcore romp as much inspired by early-2000’s post-hardcore as it is broadway theatrics and Rocky Horror. It’s simultaneously horribly tragic and joyously fun. “This is the soundtrack of me killing my enemies,” lead singer Tyler Povanda puts it, and it’s an apt descriptor for an album full of murder, funerals, death, and wearing blood like glitter. It’s fucking brilliant.
The band have made it clear in interviews that in making AK4THR, they wanted to create art for art’s sake, and that they wouldn’t have released it if they weren’t confident it was going to be the best thing they had ever made. They certainly succeeded that goal - it’s not just their best release yet, but one of the most incredible rock albums of the year. From the glitzy stomp of Bury Me (Tonight!), through the punishing skramz-esque A.M. Gothic (featuring Thursday’s Geoff Rickly) to the graceful slow-dance closer Please Murder Me, not a single moment is wasted. Kill the lights, sharpen your teeth, start up the hearse, and come along for the ride. - AC
Call Me If You Get Lost - Tyler, The Creator
Finding out we were getting a new Tyler, the Creator album back in June felt like Christmas came in the middle of summer.
The short notice at which it was announced was just enough to build complete anticipation and excitement about it coming out, without it being long enough to forget it was even coming, or worse – so oversaturated and bombarded with promotional shit that you’re sick of it by the time it comes. I remember the morning it was released, walking around my swampy apartment listening to it as I made breakfast and coffee, the leatherette on my cans sticking to the side of my face. Despite the discomfort, I couldn’t peel myself out of the world CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST until it was finished with me.
I love an album that chronicles a relationship’s messy, beautiful, sordid history – it’s my kryptonite. I think people are at their most dishonest when talking about love, and their most honest when owning up to their mistakes and missteps. The messy breakup album is perfect for that; perhaps particularly in the case of relationships of ambiguous definition, like the one(s?) explored in CMIYGL.
The narrative arc of the album is unbeaten. On the first listen, when the album starts, it’s hard to see that you’re going to become sucked in to the story of a relationship from start to finish. The seeds are sown with tracks like WUSYANAME, but when being carried along by its neighbouring tracks, LEMONHEAD and LUMBERJACK, it’s easy to not think a great deal of its romantic context. That’s the case up until the famed “Track 10 of a Tyler Album” kicks in with SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE. Much like PERFECT / FUCKING YOUNG on Cherry Bomb, and 911 / Mr. Lonely on Flower Boy, S/ITUWTD blends two tracks into one gorgeously overblown freak-out. This is the moment in the album when Tyler starts to divulge into the details of his recent affair, emptying his heart and the glove compartment of that gorgeous pink rally car for the listeners.
When I first heard WILSHIRE, I stopped in my tracks for its entire eight and a half minutes, completely basking in its storytelling. Did you know it was a freestyle? It’s like being a fly on the wall of a confessional booth or therapy session in its complete, unrepentant honesty. Despite it’s heavy-weight length, the song seems to take a hold of you completely for its duration, before letting going of you again like it was never said, with a seamless transition that would make Madvillain proud taking you into the album’s final track, SAFARI. It’s like being taken a hold of by a drunk friend who spills his guts, proverbially, onto you, only for you to keep it a total secret and never talk about it again – much like the relationship covered in this album. - Toni Oisin H.C.
Listen to the QSO Albums of the Year in a playlist below:
AC is the Head of Written Content at QSO Media. Follow them on Twitter.
Con Divers is a filmmaker and videographer. Follow them on Instagram.
Toni Oisin H.C. is the Head of Audio at QSO Media. Read more of his writing here.