We’re no strangers to music here at VGU. You know the rules, and so do I. That’s why I’m here after a long, depressing year to shed a little light on the music brought to us by 2021 – a year that was supposed to turn things around. Was it successful? I don’t think so, no. COVID is still here, and people are still jerks to each other, so there’s that. But hey! We at least got some great albums out of it! Sadly, we also got some rather unpleasant ones, too. So, as I said in the beginning, hi there! I’m Graydon, and this is a list of my Top 5 Favorite (and Least Favorite) Albums of 2021!

Just two brief notes before we begin:
First, this list is portrayed as two columns, with best albums being pictured on the left, and worst albums pictured on the right. They are also listed in order of release, within their respective columns.
Second, there will be no mention of the three big albums of the year – Bo Burnham’s Inside, Fearless (Taylor’s Version), or Sour by Olivia Rodrigo. I simply had no care at all for those albums, no matter how “important” they were to the year. No thank you.
With that, let’s begin!

The Highlights – The Weeknd

In the pantheon of “My Favorite Bands,” one name constantly tiptoes around the bullseye, making it increasingly difficult to take a seat among the rest of them. That name is Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd. Ever since his rise to fame with “Can’t Feel My Face,” I’ve considered myself a fan. However, as the years have come and gone, The Weeknd’s chart-topping releases have become more hit-or-miss with me. The inconsistent taste his music leaves in my mouth has me struggling to decide whether or not I should keep up with his career. Even his latest album, Dawn FM – which was released a couple weeks ago – has me intrigued by the radio hit “Sacrifice,” though I’m hesitant to get my hopes up. Thankfully, 2021 gave us a great compilation album, complete with some The Weeknd’s most famous “greatest hits.” The Highlights covers his career from “The Hills” and “Starboy” all the way through “Blinding Lights,” and everything in between. I was seriously taken aback by just how many songs are included on this album, and further still, I was surprised by just how many I found myself loving! Being the natural contrarian that I am, I tend to enjoy songs and artists more when they are out of the spotlight. I don’t mind jumping on a bandwagon late, as seen in my visions of enjoying “good 4 u” in about six months. The Highlights was perfect for me, in this regard, as I got to explore some of The Weeknd’s biggest hits without having them shoved down my throat by radio stations at every turn. These hidden gems include “Save Your Tears” – which I have avoided like the plague for months, as it is so overplayed – and “Call Out My Name,” which is genuinely quite good. Furthermore, it includes one of my personal favorites, “Pray for Me,” from Black Panther, as well as his two Daft Punk collaborations. If you’re a fan of The Weeknd, or even if you just like “some of his songs on the radio,” this compilation album is worth adding to the rotation.

Jordi – Maroon 5

The first album of 2021 to grace the Worst list came as no shock to me. Maroon 5 has been on a pretty public downward spiral in recent years. They were my favorite band growing up, and I’ve loved their music as far back as I can remember. However, Maroon 5 has fallen to pieces ever since Overexposed, and with every album they provide less and less to add to my Maroon 5 Mix playlist. Jordi felt like a cash grab from the very beginning, with almost an entire tracklist full of collaborations. From the moment their first collaborative single, “Beautiful Mistakes,” hit the radio, it felt like the end of an era for Maroon 5. Sadly, they’ve ended too many eras in my eyes, and I truly think this is the beginning of the end for them as a whole. I know I sound like a big downer but believe me when I say I do not want to see them fail. I bought tickets to Maroon 5 this year, for Pete’s sake! I know that I continue to bet on this old horse as I watch it die, but something in me really thinks they can reestablish the greatness of the Hands All Over era – which, in my opinion, is one of the best albums of all time. Looking at Jordi on its own, though, there are some enjoyable tracks. Though it is nothing if not redundant, I found myself humming “Lost” days after the initial listen. The collaboration with Stevie Nicks, “Remedy,” is also pretty good, and it displays Maroon 5’s ability to branch out into different genres and not completely miss the mark. The problem, I think, is that Maroon 5 squanders to maintain relevance, which always finds them genre-hopping, no matter the cost of the music. Maroon 5 were pioneers of their sound when they first hit the scene; I just wish they would stick with something for once. Maybe then we’d see greatness again.

OK Orchestra – AJR

I’m not going to say I’m surprised that AJR knocked it out of the park with their third album, OK Orchestra. AJR is a band that consistently builds upon their talents, pumping out a steady stream of wonder and amazement with every release. This does not include the lackluster release from late 2021 – “Record Player” – which is just another disappointing AJR collaboration devoid of inspiration. AJR works best on their own, and with OK Orchestra, the tracklist makes this known. Contrarily, however, one of my favorite songs is “Ordinaryish People,” which features the Blue Man Group. I’ll give them a pass, though, because they don’t do much aside from bringing their own instruments to the beautiful cacophony of sound… and the song slaps hard. In fact, most of these songs slap fairly hard, and I don’t think that’s an outlandish take. Coming from a year in which I listened to AJR’s entire discography for the first time and settled on Neotheater as my personal favorite, OK Orchestra did quite a good job following up such a fantastic album. I wouldn’t go so far as saying it’s better, but it certainly holds its own amongst the pantheon of AJR hits. Standouts include “3 O’Clock Things,” “Joe,” and “Way Less Sad,” the latter of which you’ve probably heard on the radio by now. AJR certainly made their mark on the world in 2021. They had a multitude of radio hits, from “Bang!” to “Bummerland,” and with their performance at Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, one could say they were one of the most prominent sounds of the year. OK Orchestra easily found its way into my top five, not only because they are one of my favorite bands, but because these boys never fail to show their genius, even on the more mellow, introspective tunes.

Happier Than Ever – Billie Eilish

The absolute worst thing about 2021’s disappointing albums is they were all so high up on my list of expectations. The good ones were surprises, but the fact that all of the bad ones were major let-downs really left a sour taste in my mouth (no pun intended, I really am not talking about that one). One of my most anticipated albums for the last two years was Billie Eilish’s sophomore album, Happier Than Ever. If you’ve read a lot of my work on this site, you’ll know I was an instant fan of Eilish after her first album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? I was on the Billie bandwagon, so to speak, and I thought her future looked incredibly bright. Unfortunately, after catching the public’s eye in the leadup to album #2 – thanks to some… “image rebranding” – her entire musical identity seemed to shift into territory I found rather depressing. Happier Than Ever‘s subject matter moves Eilish away from songs of existential dread and cryptic love songs in favor of social commentary regarding sexual abuse and self-discovery. I’m still grappling with my overall feelings on this album, desperate to figure out why it missed the mark. It’s not that I’m against songs about finding oneself, as I listened to this category of music for many years in high school. As you’ll read later, Lorde was the soundtrack to the majority of my “growth years,” and with the right context and subtlety, music can help people find themselves better than any book or motivational speech can. However, Eilish uses Happier Than Ever to cram the message of self-expression down the listener’s throat, utilizing her trademark breathy voice to haunt them into submissive reflection. It just feels so forced, and none of the songs sound like what made Billie so creative when she first hit the scene. If I had to recommend a song… I suppose “OverHeated” has a nice beat… and hey, I was excited when I first heard “My Future;” it’s the last remnant of the Billie I once knew and loved.

Head Up High – FITZ

When we first heard that Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and the Tantrums was producing a solo album during quarantine, fans were a little uneasy. Okay, fine, I was a bit uneasy. What makes Fitz and the Tantrums so special is the band working together to create jazzy, energetic party vibes, complete with saxophone and harmonies provided by the band’s resident “boss lady,” Noelle Scaggs. My interest was piqued, however, when I read that this solo album – released under the simple name FITZ – was going to draw from the titular singer’s battle with depression in an isolated world. The album’s first single, the title track “Head Up High,” proved that we were about to get a slew of upbeat tunes regarding one’s existential crises, and being a Bastille fan, I was thoroughly prepared for this. Fitz delivered with the subsequent singles that followed and, ultimately, the full album, which released on March 26. While I had recently received a new AJR album, something about Head Up High drew me in even more. Perhaps it was the fresh feeling of a solo album, something I have never personally experienced from one of my favorite bands. It reminds me of how I used to ask my parents, “What did you all think when Steve Perry went solo?” Wouldn’t the sound change entirely? Would it spell doom for the band as a whole? Thankfully, that’s not the case here, as Fitz has been very vocal about being back in the studio with The Tantrums, and more music is on the way! But 2021 gave us some great new tunes in a similar vein, like the club bangers “Congratulations” and “Pinata.” I’ve even gone so far as saying “Spaceman” may be the best song to ever grace the Fitz catalogue. If you love party songs to dance your ass off to, while also supporting a genuine musician whose struggles have made them who they are today, this album is definitely worth a listen… and then a few more relistens.

Bobby Tarantino III – Logic

There was a time I was so crazy about Logic. I really thought he was the shit. I went to a concert and had a blast, I bought signed posters, I was a true fan. Logic got me into enjoying rap – alongside Kanye, of course. But what Logic has done to his career in recent years is a damn shame. After dropping one of my personal favorite albums, The Incredible True Story, Bobby Boy continued to drop singles and albums at an alarming rate. From 2017-2021, Logic released four albums, a mixtape, and a soundtrack which accompanied his own novel. Some may say the guy is always out there hustling, but in reality, the quality of his work has gone down exponentially, and the majority of people I know have started to view him as more of a joke. I just don’t see that much excitement for his releases anymore, and that could be due to either the excessive amount of them, or the rather redundant subject matter of his work these days. Most songs talk about either his racial background or his son, and while that can make for some great raps sometimes, it does get tired after a while. In 2021, merely a year after announcing his retirement and releasing a final album that genuinely satisfied fans – No Pressure – Mr. Young Sinatra returned to the scene with Bobby Tarantino III, a mixtape that serves as the final in the Bobby Tarantino trilogy, as well as Logic’s final release with Def Jam. In so many words, I found BT3 to be rather underwhelming, with a lot of basic tracks that just felt like a cash grab after the amazing swan song, No Pressure. Truly, I would have been so okay with leaving Logic in 2020 for a few years, taking a break, and then seeing his career gain new life after a while. Sadly, songs like “Vaccine” and “God Might Judge” just drew an audible sigh from me, and not even a pretty good track like “Flawless” could draw me back in. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say, but it seems Bobby doesn’t subscribe to that ideology.

Welcome to the Madhouse – Tones and I

Not only is it rare to find an absolute diamond in the rough when it comes to new music, but it’s even more rare to have that album almost entirely comprised of radio dodgers – that is, songs that the mainstream charts haven’t gotten their hands on yet. While Tones and I isn’t completely unknown, what with songs like “Dance Monkey” and “Ur So F**kInG cOoL” gracing muzaks everywhere, her debut album flew almost completely under the radar this past year. What may surprise you even further is that Welcome to the Madhouse instantly became my favorite album of 2021, and absolutely blew me away from start to finish. There’s just something about the New Zealand native’s ability to share her personal struggles to a techno-calypso beat, and I loved every second of it. I remember taking a chance on this album while on vacation with my family. Having loved all of her previous singles and her five-track EP, I knew this unique voice was going to become one of my all-time favorites. Thankfully, her full album delivered, as it provided an enjoyable blend of dance-worthy club hits and somber melodies regarding depression, anxiety, and identity crisis. While I feel I could go on forever about how awesome Welcome to the Madhouse is, and how taking a chance on it was one of the best things I’ve ever done, it is rather hard to explain the nuances of it. If you’ve heard “Dance Monkey,” then you know of Tones & I’s one-of-a-kind voice, and the best way to understand what makes this album so incredible is by listening to it firsthand. Especially when up against some brilliant party albums this past year, Tones and I held her own and definitely came out on top. Don’t overlook this up-and-coming pop princess, as she’s come straight out the gate to throw the gauntlet down. Hard.

Solar Power – Lorde

Speaking of pop princesses, Lorde has been one of my favorite pop artists of the past decade. Instantly becoming a household name in 2013 with “Royals,” the second artist on my list from down under established dominance in the music world with not one, but two incredible albums to kick off her career: Pure Heroine in 2013, and Melodrama in 2017. Four years after perhaps the greatest breakup album of all time, Lorde came out of the woodwork to finally drop Solar Power, a “refreshing” change of pace meant to mark a shift in her overall attitude towards life and her career. Lorde took a break from social media and the spotlight as a whole for a few years to work on the next installment in her musical growth, and rather unfortunately, it missed the mark with a resounding groan from fans and newcomers alike. Solar Power serves as a great example of one’s career misstep, and it’s best visualized when compared to some others on this list. For example, look at Happier Than Ever, which saw Billie Eilish change up her style two albums in, before fully fleshing out her debut style. Tones and I, on the other hand, chose to shake up mainstream pop in general by altering her sound with her first big album. What Lorde did, however, was take a career she’d formed over nearly a decade and flip it on its head, alienating her fanbase in favor of producing music that reflects her current mood. It’s lovely to see Lorde loving life, however it was such a giant leap from what we know and love about her that it fell flat on its face, regardless of how it left her feeling. That being said, there are some nice little ditties like “Fallen Fruit” and “Dominoes” that stand out as both existential and unique – both qualities Lorde is known for – but all in all, Solar Power left a bad taste in my mouth, and I shunned it for quite a few months before giving it another try.

Human – OneRepublic

It has been – count it – eight years since OneRepublic dropped an album. To be fair, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Human was planned for a 2020 release, after being announced in 2019. Naturally, COVID-19 halted that progress, and the album was pushed off for another year. Thankfully, OneRepublic filled this time with quite a few singles – “Rescue Me,” “Wanted,” and “Somebody to Love,” to name a few – which the radio ate up fast, as did my ears. These songs were fueled by the heart-pounding adrenaline that OneRepublic is known for, and they hinted at some absolute greatness on the horizon. When Human finally dropped in August, I was so surprised. I remember seeing an ad on Instagram, I believe, that mentioned the album had finally dropped, and it felt like a total stealth bomb to me. Apparently, the release date had been announced a month prior, but I always find myself out of the loop. Anyway, the album satisfied my thirst for more Ryan Tedder and the gang, with energetic bangers like “Run,” emotional ballads like “Didn’t I,” and sad songs you can’t help but dance to like “Take Care Of You” and “Savior.” Over the years, I’ve come to learn that where Maroon 5 fell off the wagon of delivering thoughtful, powerful pop songs, OneRepublic picked up the pieces and continued. If you’re an old fan of Maroon 5 who misses that sound, I highly recommend going through OneRepublic’s discography. They are so much more than the “Counting Stars” or “Apologize” guys. If I had one gripe with Human, it would be that every song culminates in an a cappella rendition of the chorus before it ends. That gets tiresome after the first few times, and when listening to the whole album at once, it’s irritatingly noticeable. That being said, Human is one of the band’s best albums yet, and it was well worth the wait. Sadly, the tour will have to wait as well, as they probably won’t be back in America until 2023… and that makes me a sad panda.

Meanwhile EP – Gorillaz & Donda – Kanye West

For my last trick, I decided to mash up two albums to finish off the biggest disappointments of 2021. Here we have one album that was so short it shouldn’t even be considered an album, and one that’s so big, it’s actually two albums… and most of it shouldn’t exist. I’m talking, of course, about the Gorillaz’s 2021 release, Meanwhile EP, and the artist formerly known as Kanye West’s “magnum opus,” Donda. I’ll begin with Meanwhile, as there’s not much to be said. This EP showcases three songs, each with their own featured artists, and in the grand scheme of Gorillaz releases, none of them are particularly good. I skipped Song Machine entirely back in 2020, simply because I wasn’t a big fan of the tracks I’d heard already, such as the one they did with Elton John and 6LACK. Meanwhile continues this lackluster trend, with only one song really standing out: “Jimmy Jimmy.” All in all, Gorillaz are suffering from Logic syndrome these days, where they swore up and down a hiatus was coming, and instead… money is always better! So, we get more bad songs! Yay!

Speaking of bad songs, Donda has quite a few of them. I won’t go into massive detail, as anything that needed to be said about this beast of an album, Emmett already covered in his extensive review. Please go read that, if you haven’t yet. Really good stuff. Personally, I found myself liking a few tracks; “Jail,” in particular, is a spectacular song with a bombastic beat and a catchy hook. I truly think it’s one of Ye’s best tracks ever, but we could do without the part two. Others, like “New Again” and “Lord I Need You” have that old-school feel we know and love from Ye, but the rest of the album feels overly bloated and redundant. Donda will forever be a piece of media rife with controversy and ridicule in the public eye, but to me – aside from some noteworthy tunes – it’ll go down as one of the worst albums of 2021.

Thank you so much for reading! I can’t wait to see what awesome music 2022 brings us! I’m already looking forward to Bastille’s new album, which drops next week! Hopefully we’ll be talking about that right here next year. Until then, if you’re looking for more music-related content, head on over to this side of VGU!

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