2021 has been an incredible year for new talent and breakout moments. From debut albums hitting the charts to rising artists receiving critical acclaim, the LGBTQ+ music scene has been rife with innovative releases. There’s no doubt this last year has been a challenging time for the industry. With venues closing down, tours cancelled and artists migrating to virtual shows online, the past few months have tested the resilience of those in the music scene. Yet, against the odds, we have seen a year emboldened by the versatile pop anthems and standout albums.
To mark 2021’s unique musical year, we have pulled together a list acknowledging our favourite albums to date. Each featured artist has been recognised for their contributions as LGBTQ+ creatives. While we have opted not to rank these albums against one another, we have given a special mention to a record that has been crowned Album of the Year. Keep reading to find which album was our top pick!
Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
Throughout 2020, British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks built up to her anticipated full-length debut album with five stunning singles. The star’s knack for introspective storytelling over warm, intricate production positioned her as a voice of a generation. Touching upon themes of anxiety, mental health, romance and joy, she seamlessly captured these emotions in her lyrics. Take the song Black Dog, Parks wistfully zeros in on the relentlessness of poor mental health. Emphatic and soulful, listeners are reminded of how effortlessly the 21-year-old can vividly pull you into her own world of emotions. Elsewhere, Park’s self-assured style speaks out. In the immersively intimate Eugine, the singer unravels a drifting heartbreak from her best friend. It’s easily understood why Collapsed in Sunbeams is regarded as a near-flawless debut. At just 21 years old, Parks proves herself one of the UK’s most groundbreaking artists.
Girl in Red – If I Could Make It Go Quiet
The Taylor Swift-approved debut album has been a highlight alternative release of 2021. In an ambitious first record, Marie Ulven aka Girl In Red candidly unpacks her anxieties of growing up and coming of age. An eclectic mix of indie-pop bangers, lead single Serotonin is a must-add track for your end of year playlist. As a whole, If I Could Make It Go Quiet sees Ulven step away from her tried and tested lo-fi pop brand and steer towards a more diverse output. There’s still rehashing on the singer’s signature gritty indie-pop imprint but, now 22, Girl In Red’s artistic outlook has matured.
Wading through dark and light, Ulven’s debut is a raw musical self-reckoning. It’s an album intimately her own – even boasting a short list of collaborators – that pushes the artist into fresh creative territory. In a single impassioned tracklist, Ulven echos the thoughts of an anxiety generation pushing for a healthier state of mind. An album fraught with pop-punk angst and brazen openness, it holds a noticeable shift as, midway, songs ebb into a tranquil tone. It’s here, during the quieter moments, that Ulven admits her newfound peacefulness may be “too good” to be true. However, as Girl In Red leaves us in a serene album outro, we see Ulven’s experimental palette for what it really is.
Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Michelle Zauner has been busy. Not only did the artist find the time to release her New York Times’ best seller, Crying in H Mart, but also an incredible album. Jubilee stands as the singer’s first release since her third record, one shaped by the passing of her mother who died of pancreatic cancer in 2014. Japanese Breakfast is no stranger to grief; a theme that encapsulated her last album. However, looking ahead, the singer revealed Jubilee would contrast this. Instead, her newest indie release is one that seeks out joy, even in the harshest of moments. Through the record, Japanese Breakfast’s shining quality is the humanness of her art, and Jubilee is no different. The album’s saccharine lead single, Be Sweet, is a polished teaser of the standard to expect.
Elsewhere, Japanese Breakfast falsifies charm as she tracks into dark waters. Misleadingly upbeat, Savage Good Boy walks through an apocalyptic hyper-capitalist nightmare stitched together by five-year plans and a reiterated craving for money. With a title like In Hell, I wouldn’t expect things to get lighter. The album’s latter half is notably gloomier. Jubilee’s last track, Posing For Cars, is a ballad dedicated to loneliness. Part touching prose and part shimmering rock outro, it’s the final pieces of the artist’s mesmeric world-building. Jubilee is an album of different depths, genres and directions. It’s a body of work that sprawls as it pursues greater emotions. And, right at the end, it offers a reminder to keep a hold onto hope.
Remi Wolf – Juno
California singer Remi Wolf brought her funky technicolour vision to the masses over Tik Tok. The 25-year-old star’s viral hit Photo ID swept across the internet and pushed her name into the internet mainstream. Now, Wolf’s bold hook-filled moments are lauded for their stellar production and upbeat takes. Album opener Liquid Store – a track exploring the singer’s alcohol dependency – snags your attention and warrants you to stay. Juno is an album brimming with Wolf’s vibrant flair. Her dynamic production twists songs into new directions. Whether it’s a comical child’s storytelling outro in Quiet on Set or the buzzing business of Guerlla, Wolf proves how elastic her genre play can be.
The latter half of the album tones down the artist’s fizzing energy. Mid album staples Buttermilk and Sally establish a new vision of sincerity from the singer. Both tracks lean on Wolf’s pitched vocals and playful lyrics. Yet, despite their cartoonish feel, they come away as charmingly authentic. Juno, unsurprisingly, is a chaotic portrait of imagination and drive. Co-produced by an artist that dons fuzzy hats, oversized shades and eccentric eye make-up, we wouldn’t expect Juno to be any different.
Tyler, The Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Throughout his career, Tyler, the Creator has continued to subvert expectations. On his 2019 album, the artist spoke about a relationship with a man who was also tied up with a woman. It was one of the first instances that he put his sexuality in such sharp focus. For his latest outing, Call Me If You Get Lost, the artist genre-hops across 16 tracks that hear him switch up his tone frequently, but it somehow flows effortlessly. From the smooth 90s R&B of WUSYANAME to the synth-laden groove of SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE, Tyler never fails to keep things fresh.
Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Halsey has long shrouded their stardom in theatrical concept albums. From their circa 2014 Room 93 to their Romeo and Juliet inspired third album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, the New Jersey native has a knack for detailed storytelling. In their latest move, the star takes a darker lead with their megalomaniacal magnum opus. Partnering with Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross, Halsey pieces together an album cognisant of its own horror. Track by track, the singer walks a tight line unravelling the destruction, beauty and complication of control. Much like their previous release, Manic, the singe splays out core themes into powerful self-contained songs.
From its beginnings, If I Can’t Have Love was set up to provoke. Accompanied with a grand trailer revealing its regal album art, Halsey ensured it was an album experienced to its fullest extent. Alongside its release, a gothic IMAX film (of the same name) was announced. Both the album and its add ons all feed into its intense themes of self-destruction and love. Written during their pregnancy, its contrasting moments of bliss (Darling) and sabotage (You Asked For This) tightly align. Departing from her watermark pop style, If I Can’t Have Love vibrates with thrashing drums and guitars. Take rock anthem Honey, a song dedicated to a female lover, is confessionally upfront. Elsewhere, I’m Not A Woman, I’m A God, the singer self-assesses her ego: “I am not a legend, I’m a fraud”. It’s an album that doesn’t relent and for good reason. If I Can Have Love is a statement of self-expression and creative authority. In all, it proves itself as one of 2021’s strongest releases and gave us the alternative Halsey album we always wanted.
Willow – Lately I Feel Everything
Sidestepping the predictability of an artist’s next phase, Willow became the new face of pop punk overnight. The singer’s viral hit Transparent Soul ricocheted across the internet as it was hyped up on Tik Tok and its lyrics endlessly quoted online. Marking the artist’s fourth studio album, Willow pushed past her previous psychedelic sound for a record packed with rock, punk and pop influences. Much like her previous catalogue, the star child digs deep to emotionally lay out her experiences.
Recruiting the help of alternative icons Travis Barker and Avril Lavigne on Grow felt like a slip back into early 2000s nostalgia. A buoyant track, it kicks into gear as Willow repeatedly ruminates on the thought of moving forward: “I’ve been putting work in, healing myself / Still got room to grow”. Lavigne’s input is nothing short of what we’d expect from a legacy artist; a confident add-on that makes the song all the more enjoyable. The alternative shakeup is a style that effortlessly suits Willow. Whether it’s the hearty shout-out F**ck You or the seal-the-deal close out ¡Breakout!, these tracks reaffirm the star’s confident redirection. Lately I Feel Everything thrives, tinged with alternative energies, but, stripped back, it retains Willow’s creative mark.
Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
Rebecca Taylor (aka Self Esteem) returned to the industry with an inviting album. As a title, Prioritise Please reads off like a wellness mantra cited during a therapy call. If anything, the record’s name, is an indicator of what’s to come. Taylor ditches her indie-pop roots for a more experimental pop sound that flawless holds its own. From the album’s powerful opener, Taylor directly questions: “Do you understand the pain you cause / When you see a body just for sport?”. Shortly after, a fragment of dialogue, sampled from a consent theatre workshop, is slipped in. Unsuspecting listeners are suddenly confronted with a woman’s go-to tactic to avoid intimidation from men on the street. “There is nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged,” the unnamed speaker powerfully states. Taylor sets up a confident, commands tone that doesn’t falter.
Mid album moments Mood and I Do This All The Time really show how the star’s humour and candour really shine. Still Reigning sticks with Taylor’s vulnerable pop vision while she extends self-realised affirmations: “The love you need is gentle / The love you need is kind”. Prioritise Please continues to wind through, shame, self-expression and certainty seeping through. Whether it’s confessing to sexting during a mental health talk or missing birthday drinks after you’ve died. Regardless of whichever track you hang onto, you’ll find spots of grandeur from this pop album. Drawing from her personal experiences (stories of mental health, personal difficulties and romance), Taylor forks out her emotions to pull off this pleasureful pop masterstroke.
Doja Cat – Planet Her
Few artists have been able to imitate what Doja Cat’s has maintained. From her charismatically chaotic online presence to her smooth flow, Doja Cat is an artist that knows her bounds and still exceeds. Planet Her is the pop star’s third album and it stands true to her talent, despite some weaker moments. Viral sensation Kiss Me More (feat. SZA) is retro 80s hit you’ll either know off the radio or the many TikTok trends it cropped up in. Internet trends (and controversies) have no doubt boosted Doja Cat’s career. It looks like shitposting and getting cancelled (and uncancelled) can play in your favour. One thing’s for certain, the singer’s internet fame doesn’t take away from her steady album.
Planet Her opener, Woman, sees the singer slip into an accent as she sets the pace for this ambitious concept record. Despite its push for bigger moments, it’s Doja Cat’s effortless delivery that stands out. Take Get Into It (Yuh), the artist’s impresses as she switches up her delivery to reel off lines at a surefire pace. Follow-up track Need To Know is not as experimental, but is an easy enough listen. Doja Cat aims high and falls somewhere between expectation and excellence. In all, Planet Her is an eccentric record coasting on a cool attitude and confident capabilities.
Lil Nas X – Montero [Album of the Year]
Lil Nas X’s rise as a generational game-changer has not been unfounded. The 22 year-old artist, Montero Lamar Hill, has smashed records with his viral sensation Old Town Road – which became the longest-running No 1 single in US history – and has since been on an unstoppable upward climb. Cultivating a dedicated fanbase, the singer has been open and honest about his struggle with his sexuality and has since become a pioneering voice of Black LGBTQ+ visibility. Let’s not forget how the star had a song, Montero (Call Me By Your Nam, about gay sex commercially chart for weeks. Not only was the young artist breaking taboos, but he was also redefining what chartpop can appear as.
Lil Nas X’s self-titled debut, Montero, proved his stardom is well deserved. Packing together chart worthy collaborations (Doja Cat, Jack Harlow, Megan Thee Stallion) and genre-defying hits, Lil Nas X’s first full-length record is unapologetic in what it brings to the table. Montero cements Lil Nas X as a revolutionary artist that has single-handedly reshaped what a multifaceted creative can look like.