Musically 2021 has been an interesting one to navigate. With touring only just starting to pick-up again, you may suspect that artists would be cautious to release without the certainty of this more lucrative financial platform. However in one of the bizarrely positive effects of the pandemic, an abundance of time on their hands has lead countless albums releases with musicians channelling their free time into the studio. Add to this further complexities tackling the industry such as huge demand hitting vinyl pressing plants and deliveries and you have a curious year musically. Yet the year has given us no shortage of fantastic music to enjoy, Like last year’s rundown we are going to run through our album highlights chronologically.
Swedish pop talent Benjamin Ingrosso got the cold winter month of January off to a sterling start with En gång i tiden (del 1) a release that would see him record in his native language and hit the top spot in his home album charts. Tracks such as Flickan på min gata saw Benjamin reveal some of his most personal songwriting yet. ZAYN would also make his long-awaited return in January with third studio album Nobody Is Listening. The LP, a more R&B centred release than his debut, would feature the mellow romantic Better and the pure filth of Sweat.
Legendary songstress and film icon Jane Birkin released the stellar Oh! Pardon tu dormais… in February – her first album of original tracks in near two decades. The haunting and complex bilingual album sees Birkin tackle challenging themes like past loves and grief on the impressive and very welcome return. Another legend of cinema would shine on the musical front, John Carpenter’s Lost Themes III: Alive After Death would see his electronic collaborations with son Cody Carpenter transcend into a trilogy. These soundtrack ready synth albums are dripping in spooky electronic atmosphere and a sense of brooding danger which soars on the likes of Skeleton. An electronic affair of a different sort was SG Lewis’s Times a collection of immaculately produced dance-pop bangers featuring stars including Robyn and Nile Rodgers. The set was an impressive chance to see Lewis step into the spotlight on his own back after producing hits for countless others.
Nick Jonas would step back into the solo realm with Spaceman. His lockdown album would be centred on the joys of his newfound relationship but also the challenges of isolation and the then political climate. Working with producer Greg Kurstin, the set features some of Nick’s best solo work including the soulful This Is Heaven and the brassy euphoria of Delicious – a deluxe version with a collaboration with Joe and Kevin Jonas also gave us the excellent Selfish. Soul would be on the menu for Valerie June’s The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers – her fifth studio album – with the Memphis singer shining on the bluesy, heavy-hearted releases such as Call Me a Fool.
Italian heartthrob AIELLO would make his debut at his nation’s San Remo contest with the impassioned Ora with its full album Meridionale delivering Mediterranean beats and passionate dancefloor friendly bangers. Loretta Lynn delivered her forty-sixth studio album Still Woman Enough working with producers Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash and featuring collaborations with Reba, Carrie Underwood, Tanya Tucker and Margo Price. Lana Del Rey also continued to be a prolific presence in 2021 with her first (and strongest) of two albums of the year appearing. Chemtrails Over the Country Club saw the singer once again collaborate with Jack Antonoff on modern day anthems like Let Me Love You like a Woman and the album’s brooding title track.
Quarter 2 would see with British music legend Marianne Faithfull return after a bout with COVID to release She Walks In Beauty alongside Warren Ellis. The set contained Faithfull’s renditions of classic romantic poems from Keats and Lord Byron with the singer adding some world-weary pathos and gravitas to the timeless odes. On the pop front Australian icon Delta Goodrem returned with her seventh album Bridge Over Troubled Dreams with singles Paralyzed and Billionaire showcasing a sense of pop diversity. Weaving personal stories throughout the lyrics alongside versatile genres on display from soul to pop to country, Delta is at her most transparent here. A new discovery to us, Natalie Bergman floored-us with her album Mercy – her first solo release outside of duo Wild Belle. Natalie’s mix of redemptive power and catharsis are blended with woozy nostalgic videos – some sticking with a black and white aesthetic style such as that for Shine Your Light On Me. Talk To The Lord has a similar vintage approach, captured with Super 8 graininess and free-spirited sixties energy.
Jessie Ware reissued her seminal What’s Your Pleasure? as The Platinum Pleasure Edition with near enough a new album’s worth of material including house banger Please and Hot n Heavy – the latter which saw her team-up with man of the moment SG Lewis. Greyson Chance gave us the gift of some new music including tracks such as Hellboy – a sophisticated multi-lingual slice of pop music from his album Trophies which spawned singles Holy Feeling and Nobody. The handsome star showcased a sense of growth and maturity on these polished pop concoctions. June would also see the release of In the Heights and Hamilton star Anthony Ramos‘ second studio album Love and Lies. The album showcases his diversity as a musician, shining in its broad range of musical territories yet still managing to feel cohesive and authentic to Ramos’s voice as an artist. The more pop-centric moments prove to be highlights yet there is an emotive and engaging swagger to be found in Love and Lies’ impassioned R&B anthems and Latin-flavoured gems. British soul singer Yola delivered the album highlight of July, her second studio album Stand for Myself – an effortlessly stunning collection with gorgeously constructed melodies and an impassioned message of standing up for oneself. Songs such as Starlight captured Yola’s soulful spirit, with the singer shining on the nuanced collection.
It’s rare to see a cover album make our list but Will Young brought a fresh voice to tracks originally by female artists on Crying on the Bathroom Floor. Amongst the other acts covered are Muna, Robyn, Lykke Li, Sky Ferreira, Solange, and the underrated Clare Maguire with the singer refusing to choose anything too obvious. Will explores a new dimension on many of the tracks alongside producer Richard X, with highlights including the title track and a new take on Robyn’s Indestructible.
A pop legend returned with her first original collection in twenty years. Debbie Gibson’s The Body Remembers is a feast for pop fans – blending a plethora of styles from dancepop to ballads with fantastic results. One Step Closer feels like a companion to any contemporary Dua Lipa banger, whilst the exotic mid-tempos of the title track are a real highlight, and not to mention floorfilling anthem Girls Night Out. Debbie really delivered a pop masterclass on this set.
Country royalty Sam Williams delivered his debut album Glasshouse Children with the collection blending introspective musings on love and death to more bold and empowered country-pop moments. Highlights include collaborations with Dolly Parton and Keith Urban, yet Sam manages to stand on his own on the impressive You Can’t Fool Your Own Blood and 10-4.
Steps guided us into the autumnal months with What the Future Holds Pt. 2 – the companion album to their 2020 success. The album would prove to be even more of a triumph than its predecessor with more of a focus on bangers than the first. The mid-tempo grooves of Take Me for a Ride would present a new direction for Steps, whilst a Michelle Visage assisted remix of Heartbreak in This City gives further floorfilling euphoria. Other contemporary treats such as Wasted Tears, Living a Lie, Victorious and Trouble & Love helped this shine as another Steps masterclass.
Pushing into the future with their sound, Duran Duran continue to keep their foot on the accelerator with Future Past – an album that drives the band forward with more than a playful wink back to their synth-soaked past. The unmistakable vocals of Simon LeBon cut like glass on the the group’s asserting Invisible, whilst the rippling Giorgio Moroder synths on Beautiful Lies and Tonight United shine as contemporary electronic floorfillers. Contributions from Tove Lo and CHAI showcase the band’s continued passion for pushing forward with new sounds and collaborators – something that has helped them sustain a long prolific career.
Natalie Imbruglia delivered her first original collection since underrated 2009 classic Come to Life. The carefree collection, Firebird, blends country-flavoured pop and piano-driven ballads to produce an honest, canny welcome back for Natalie. The synth-driven sounds of Maybe It’s Great would prove to be a highlight, whilst the rousing lead single Build It Better and On My Way soared with an easy nineties nostalgia.
Agnes returned with Magic Still Exists – her first album in nine years. Agnes dubs the album’s genre ‘spiritual disco’ and this term feels perfect – these eleven tracks conjure up themes of utopian ideals, celestial magic, and the power of freedom all channelled through the sounds of dance music. Must hear tracks include the euphoric call to arms of 24 Hours, the industrial dance sounds of Love and Appreciation and the soulful disco of Fingers Crossed.
The Cornish coast would provide inspiration for the sixteenth studio album from Tori Amos dubbed Ocean to Ocean. The LP struck a chord with listeners capturing the whirlwind of emotions that 2020 and 2021 have brought as showcased on intricate Speaking With Trees and the fast-paced Spies. One of Tori’s most accessible albums in some time, Ocean to Ocean conjures up lush imagery whilst posing questions about falling to the bottom and the journey back up to the surface.
An unexpected posthumous collection from Dead Or Alive proved to be one of the most welcome releases of the year. Fan the Flame Part 2 (The Resurrection) presents the unmistakable vocals of Pete Burns against pounding nineties house beats on Cathy Dennis inspired delights such as Extacy, Tonight and U Were Meant 4 Me. Pete’s voice still hits with the energy of a thundering steam train and this eight track collection marked a welcome expansion to Dead Or Alive’s sadly too-short discography.
As the year draws to a close Diana Ross made a welcome return to the studio to bring us Thank You – a melting pot of all the inspirations and sounds that made her an icon. From the sparkling pop of the album’s title track to the Jack Antonoff produced I Believe, the slinky Motown flavoured ballad All is Well, and contemporary disco-centred tracks such as Tomorrow and If the World Just Danced – there is something to reflect all eras of Ms Ross’s expansive musical career.
However long Ms Ross’s twenty-two year delay for an original album felt, ABBA’s forty year hiatus between albums overshadowed it. The iconic Swedish foursome returned with Voyage an album of unspeakable beauty that miraculously did not disappoint. The heavenly combination of Agnetha and Frida’s vocals felt like being reunited with old friends, especially when delivering Benny and Bjorn’s gorgeous lyrics and melodies. Without a single skippable track, Voyage soared through the synthy Keep an Eye on Dan, the emotional I Still Have Faith in You, and classic ABBA pop-banger Don’t Shut Me Down – yet every track shines in its masterful own right.