New Year’s resolutions can come in many forms, and I chose to embark on a music journey. For every day of 2021, I decided to listen to an album. I was introduced to new artists, enjoyed new projects from songwriters I love and suffered through a few projects I regret putting on my list. To celebrate a year’s worth of albums though, I’ve selected 21 of the best and most enjoyable.
Of course, albums by Billie Eilish, Adele, Silk Sonic and Still Woozy were at the top of my listening charts, but I want to use this list to highlight artists that may not be more niche but deserve a listen to. As someone who generally enjoys alternative rock and R&B, this list represents artists from that realm, though there are a few that go beyond those genres I adored. So, before we really get into 2022, let’s look at the fun finds and hidden gems I found last year.
“Deadpan Love (2021)” by Cautious Clay (2,222,650 monthly listeners)
If I’d describe anything as “a vibe,” it’s Cautious Clay’s “Deadpan Love” hands down. The alt-R&B star releases hit after hit with a voice you can recognize from miles away, and tracks like “Karma & Friends” and “Dying in the Subtlety” are only a slice of what this album has to offer.
“Private Space (2021)” by Durand Jones & The Indications (1,409,854 monthly listeners)
Retro Soul does not get better than “Private Space,” as the band runs on nostalgia that still feels fresh and modern. Singers Durand Jones and Aaron Frazer offer variety in sound and style, which makes tracks like “Witchoo” and “The Way That I Do” must-listens for the old school music lovers at heart.
“Absolutely (2021)” by Dijon (1,721,919 monthly listeners)
Dijon's early success with viral hits like “Skin” and “Nico’s Red Truck” showed what progressive R&B and modern indie sounds like at its best, and his debut album is another step toward the perfect blend he’s crafted for himself. Dijon pours his heart out on this album with tracks like “Rodeo Clown” and “The Dress,” which is one of the best songs of the year perfect for the bittersweet reminiscence we all have from time to time.
“I Know I’m Funny haha (2021)” by Faye Webster (1,636,715 monthly listeners)
Faye Webster’s 2019 album “Atlanta Millionaires Club” brought quiet and steady rock to the forefront of my mind, but her new project made me realize how good of a musician she really is. Her calm singing blends perfectly with her storytelling ballads, and I could listen to just her and guitar for ages. “Better Distractions” and the titular track “I Know I’m Funny haha” are good singles to start, but the entire album is perfect for a slow and stressless afternoon.
“LET’S JUST SAY THE WORLD ENDED A WEEK FROM NOW, WHAT WOULD YOU DO? (2021)” by HONNE (5,996,297 monthly listeners)
British duo HONNE knows electric pop and R&B like the backs of their hands. Their fourth project sees them take the tempo down from their 2018 album “Love Me/ Love Me Not” to bring feel-good love songs like “DANCING ON A CLOUD” and fantastic bass tracks like “WHAT WOULD YOU DO?.” It’s simple: if you’re looking for good music, listen to HONNE.
“Skin (2021)” by Joy Crookes (1,769, 705 monthly listeners)
Another UK artist worth several listening sessions, Joy Crookes takes mellow R&B to new heights with grand instrumentation and soothing vocals. It’s no surprise that she’s been compared to the great Amy Winehouse, especially impressive given “Skin” is her debut album. Listen to “When You Were Mine” and “Feet Don’t Fail Me Know” to get a feel for an artist who will only grow as time passes.
“CINEMA (2021)” by The Marías (3,278,810 monthly listeners)
I’d use hypnotic to describe this group's 2021 debut album. Two prior EPs gave soft bedroom pop hits like “Over the Moon” and “I Don’t Know You,” but The Marías take it up a notch with tracks that bring an edge to their established sound. “Calling U Back” and “Hush” are singles that rock in ways only The Marías know how to, so do yourself a favor and jump into their world of sensual psychedelia.
“Hold Space For Me (2020)” by Orion Sun (870,179 monthly listeners)
The multi-instrumentalist known as Orion Sun creates vulnerable songs that float and drift with ease but still carry a firm percussive groove that keeps her sophomore album moving and focused. Alt-R&B and Bedroom Pop are blended throughout the project, but “Lightning” and “Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me)” are exceptional examples to listen to.
“Juno (2021)” by Remi Wolf (3,306,982 monthly listeners)
Remi Wolf brings the energy in every song she sings, and the energy is unlike any other artist I’ve listened to. Indie might be one way to describe her, but her blend of genres makes her undefinable, which makes her all the more special. She flexes her vocal power with “Front Tooth” and jams out on “Sexy Villain” in ways I didn’t know I’d like so much. Listen to her music – ALL of her music if you know what’s good for you.
“ALPHA (2021)” by Charlotte Day Wilson (1,827,646 monthly listeners)
The Toronto-based singer made moody soul her bread and butter, and on “ALPHA,” we are treated to heart-wrenching musical compositions that feel complete and purely Charlotte Day Wilson. “Mountains” is a spin on gospel I play on repeat, and “I Can Only Whisper” showcases her breathtaking talent in under three minutes.
The remaining names on this list are dedicated to artists with less than 1,000,000 monthly listeners on Spotify; some are truly hidden gems.
by“Booyah (2019)” by the booyah! kids (160,125 monthly listeners)
This trio is a calming presence with soft pop hits that make you feel like you’re in a grainy indie film. “Booyah” varies in styles, from “Call Me” to “Don’t Trust Me” to “Only U,” but the group's conversation on love and aging in this album is worth sinking 25 minutes into.
“SATIN PLAYGROUND (2021)” by DACEY (43,353 monthly listeners)
Releasing their first single in 2019, DACEY is a genre-bending creative that defines new age with Neo-Soul, Alt-R&B and Indie sounds impressively constructed together. “See Thru Me” plays off Sade’s “Lovers Rock,” and “Broccoli’s Keeper” is a delightful, controlled album closer.
“Dream Cruise (2021)” by Hard Car Kids (71,206 monthly listeners)
Six musicians coming together to release a debut album is not easy to do, but the Hard Car Kids bring indie and R&B to each track on “Dream Cruise.” Standout singer Charlie Burg keeps the chorus on “Are U Coming Over?” light and rhythmic, while “I Don’t Wanna Talk” feels like the ultimate freestyle session that hits each of the member’s unique contribution to the group. It’s fun, and I can’t wait for more Hard Car Kids.
“Once in a Dry Season (2019)” by Paul Russell (120,493 monthly listeners)
One of my most grateful finds this year, Paul Russell raps with a flow that’s tough and slick, but sings with a raspy, soulful voice that pairs well with his introspective lyrics. A TikTok star and a musician deserving way more attention, listen to “Osmun Place,” “Renfro” and “Kalamazoo” to see what you’ve been missing all this time.
“Mary (2021)” by King Pari (40,803 monthly listeners)
Another group with a 2021 debut album, King Pari pushes chill and funk together to create “Mary.” “Understanding” is an underrated song that reminds me of a brighter version of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and “Sunshine” is an instant favorite track for those old-school funk lovers.
“soft thing (2021)” by LOONY (484,046 monthly listeners)
If you haven’t heard of LOONY yet, you’re missing out on one of the best neo-soul singers of 2021. She is easily one of my favorite finds of last year, mixing gospel, hip hop and R&B to create a melodic masterpiece with “soft thing.” “raw” is a beautiful track that speaks to the heart of a good relationship, and “either side” makes you sway and bop your head to a shift in the relationship. The album is uniquely LOONY, and I can’t express enough how much it’s worth a listen.
“SUPERNOVA (2021)” by Mei (93,273 monthly listeners)
After a series of singles and EPs, Mei’s debut album is a transition to a more authentic version of himself as an artist and person. Inspired by a breakup, “SUPERNOVA” shows the highs and lows of a major life-change. “Good energy” is a slow, guitar-led jam song, and “Rubber Soles” shows Mei at his most vulnerable. It’s an obvious listen for those looking for good indie jams.
“There’s Only Being Yourself (2020)” by Radiant Children (153,878 monthly listeners)
This group’s debut album screams confidence and style, as Radiant Children thrives off funk and Alt-R&B in every note and musical direction. Vocalist Fabienne Holloway oozes flair, and tracks like “Mariposa” and “Rare” are the right head-bop tunes to make a drive or dance floor all the better.
“Sylo Songs (2020)” by Sylo Nozra (237,542 monthly listeners)
Sylo Nozra runs the gambit with 23 tracks on his 2020 album, totaling over an hour of genre bending R&B and indie. We’re spoilt for choice with his soft vocals and mellow beats, but I’d recommend listening to “FOMO,” “fading,” “Meadows” and “Emotions” – all worth many, many playthroughs.
“Together Lonely (2019)” by Tim Atlas (714,918 monthly listeners)
“Together Lonely” is the feel-good indie rock album we needed all year. Tim Atlas turns the tempo down and envelops us in R&B melodies that feel refreshing as a freshly squeezed “Tangerine.” Apart from the opening track, songs like “Together Lonely” and “Never Know” are the right collection of songs to get you to fall in love with Tim Atlas and his more recent project “QUOTA.”
“i like when you shine! (2021)” by BETWEEN FRIENDS (2,159,707 monthly listeners)
My favorite album this year came in June when pop duo BETWEEN FRIENDS released their 25-track project, “I like when you shine!” – an album that goes beyond their stellar EP, “we just need some time together.” Most songs on this album are musical vignettes ranging from an electropop piece titled “down” to an oceanside R&B track called “poolside++chateau.” Other parts of the album resemble conventional three-minute songs, like an Aretha Franklin cover of “day dreaming” and a personal favorite titled “video games.” The album is unique and unfamiliar, but I couldn’t stop listening to this creative experiment by the LA-based siblings. Listen to a few of the songs listed above, and if you like what you hear, take your time with “I like when you shine!” – you won’t regret it.
Albums are the point of connection between artist and listener, and it’s oftentimes the way artists share part of themselves. They tell stories, and listening to a story a day was a test in dedication. This felt ambitious at the beginning of the year, and having now reached the end of this goal – 365 albums later – I now understand what an ambitious undertaking it was. 2021 for music was a series of highs and lows, where some days the album was difficult to get through, but those unfortunate experiences were bearable with the outstanding albums and artists I discovered last year. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for all artists, especially those with smaller audiences who are putting their music out into the world for us to enjoy. Three hundred and sixty-five albums were a big commitment for me last year, but I’m more excited than ever for 2022 to bring more albums for me to dive into.
Monthly listeners were taken from Spotify. If you’re interested in the 365 albums I listened to this year, feel free to look here.
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