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A Look Back on the Music Highlights of 2021

In 2021, the music industry did what it could to recuperate from the COVID-19 lockdowns of the prior year. Concerts returned, artists went back to the studios, and music videos were filmed once more. Many artists took the time away from society to write new music to release in 2021. It seems that time away gave many lots of inspiration and lots of incredible music to release in 2021. All of the genres of music are coming back with ferocious vigor. We’ve collected a few highlights that stood out to us. We’re definitely not going to hit every milestone, but we’re going to at least list some favorites!

Big Time Rush Returned

Anyone who watched Nickelodeon between 2009 and 2013 probably remembers the boy band Big Time Rush. Seen on their TV show with the same name, Big Time Rush was a band made for the Nickelodeon show then later became a real band signed by Nick Records. Created during the boy band resurgence, they were a big hit for the network, touring all over the world. But sadly, the group only stayed together until 2013, and after that they all decided to release their own music. Fans were devastated, but it seems that after the massively successful return of The Jonas Brothers, Big Time Rush wanted a piece of the action. After years of being broken up, in July 2021, the band announced two concerts in December in Chicago and New York City. Both shows sold out within three days.

The band announced their comeback with a tweet, “WE ARE BACK! It’s been a minute, but we couldn’t be more excited to see you! Let’s make up for lost time” (see tweet below)

Olivia Rodrigo Released Her Debut Album Sour

Olivia Rodrigo has become something of an icon to Gen-Z and her debut album was talked about by music lovers of all genres. Rodrigo gained popularity from her roles on the Disney Channel TV show Bizaardvark and the Disney+ show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (try saying that 5x fast). The Disney+ quickly cultivated a huge following, and the cast of the show is said to be really close. So close in fact that Rodrigo was rumored to be dating her co-star and love interest on the show, Joshua Bassett. Once her debut song “driver’s license” was released, a ballad about heartbreak, fans immediately connected the dots. This only created more buzz around her upcoming debut album that was an instant success upon release on May 21.

Alex Ramos and NPR describe the album is “one of the few pieces of music that's explicitly angry at an ex for sharing with their new lover the music you consider yours. How could they? Rodrigo knows how much this hurts; her frustration is written all over the record.”

The album is all about failed romance and is described by Pitchfork as “a nimble and lightly chaotic grab bag of breakup tunes, filled with both melancholy and mischief.” Sour debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, remaining in the top 10 for months after its debut. Sour is an impressive debut for the singer who is just 18 years old. Olivia Rodrigo is definitely one to watch in the coming years.

The Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band Released Soul Conversations

This was an anticipated album from Ulysses Owens Jr. Soul Conversations is the renowned drummer’s recording debut with his exciting new 19-piece outfit, the UOJ Big Band, as well as the artist’s first release on Outside in Music. The repertoire mixes jazz classics with band-member originals. The accent is on uplift and joyful harmonies laced with the blues. Reviewer Mike Hobart said about the album, “arrangements are focused, solo strength is at a major high, and the showcase brass is as tight as a nut.”

Lil Nas X Released “Montero”

As an openly gay rapper, Lil Nas X was both praised and demonized when he came out. Sadly, homophobia is still a problem, and it was doubled since many Christian families considered the rapper to be “kid friendly” since his track “Old Town Road” became very popular, surprisingly among kids. Since then, Lil Nas X has made it clear that just because kids enjoy his music, it does not mean he makes music for kids. In 2021, he released music with a lot more grit, to make it clear that his image was going to be what he wanted, and it was not a kid friendly, holier than thou attitude. The main event was his song “Montero.”

The song features many Greco-Roman and medieval Christian motifs and messages. Lil Nas used these to draw comparisons between ancient and modern-day persecution. He’s been quoted saying, “I wanted to use these things that have been around for so long to tell my own story, and the story of so many other people in the [LGBTQ] community—or people who have been outcast in general through history.”

As previously mentioned, with a portion of the population still believing that any sexuality that isn’t straight is a “sin,” Lil Nas X decided to rebel against that thinking by releasing “Montero” a song that’s all about self-acceptance. It’s basically saying, “if being gay means I’m a sinner, then I’m ready to sin as much as I can.” This total embrace of his queer identity is shown through details of the music video such as Lil Nas X riding a stripper role down to Hell where he gives the Devil a lap dance. This brought all kinds of attention on him, but he was greatly praised by the LGBTQ community for showing the importance of being open and refusing to hide it to make people “comfortable.” His popularity continues to grow, and it’s exciting to see what the rapper will release next.

Emmet Cohen Released Future Stride

This latest release from the talented jazz pianist is incredible and worth listening to. This is his debut album on the Mack Avenue record label and features contemporary stars Marquis Hill and Melissa Aldana. Cohen has a charismatic charm in his work that draws listeners in close to hear what he wants his music to share with them.

The album title refers to the “stride,” a piano style that evolved in 1920s Harlem. Reviewer Veronica Johnson gushed about the album saying that it “takes listeners on a nostalgic journey through stride’s heyday but also reports on the current state of jazz” (Source). This album is a fun blend of sounds, taking you from twinkling quiet to rising roars. For lovers of jazz, this is a must listen if you haven’t yet!

Brand of Sacrifice Released Their New Album Lifeblood

Brand of Sacrifice had been creating some buzz after opening on a few big deathcore tours, but they didn’t really start gaining a lot of attention until they released their album 2021 album Lifeblood. Deadpress described the album’s sound as, “The instruments land with the force of a car accident, the vocals roar like a war cry across an alien landscape,” (Source). What made this album stand out was the creative risks they decided to take such as adding choirs being a number of chorus sections and electronic glitches beneath breakdowns.

One interesting fact about the album is that is written with inspiration from the beloved Japanese manga Berserk. This brought a different group of people to the album. All these factors added up to massive success for the band. From deathcore, to metalcore, to pop punk fans, were talking about this album online. And for a good reason. It’s incredibly well-produced and, in my personal opinion, wonderful.

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version) released by Taylor Swift

Casual fans of Taylor Swift may be confused by this title. Taylor’s version? Wasn’t it already her version? Well, as it turns out, due to a contract signed at the beginning of her career, Swift does not have the legal ownership of many songs written in the early days. These albums are a “clap back” to the owners of the songs because she took the existing album and put together a collection that includes unreleased, original, and updated sounds. These are versions she has rights to. It’s clear that Swift put a lot of heart into this rerelease, and it’s definitely worth a listen...especially "All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From the Vault)".

Lorna Shore Released a New EP

Deathcore band Lorna Shore replaced their singer and came with a major bang, baffling fans of metal with an incredible EP, ...And I Return to Nothingness that featured the six-minute song, “To the Hellfire.” In a genre like deathcore where the heavier something is, the more attention it gets, this comeback EP wasn’t just heavy. It has sophistication and composition that is getting fans even outside the genre talking. One thing that helped it stand out was its incredible breakdowns, including one where the singer Will Ramos makes these...well, the best way I can describe them as a squealing pig. It sounds weird, but fans of the genre love it, and it works really well in the song. This EP gave a lot of deathcore fans hope for what’s to come in the future of the genre.

TikTok Is Still Making Songs Go Viral

It’s not just modern songs that get thrown around one of the biggest social media apps of the year. No, sometimes, TikTok trends bring back old songs. For example, Kid Cudi’s 2008 song, “Day n Nite” went viral on TikTok, boosting the streaming numbers for the song after it was partly forgotten by the masses (Source).

Source: Credit to Twitter user @NoteToScene

A similar thing happened with All Time Low’s 2000s hit, “Dear Maria Count Me In.” When someone posted a TikTok of them jamming out to the song, it started a trend that helped older users remember their love for it while helping younger discover a new artist. It grew so big that the song went 2x platinum thanks to TikTok.

BTS Released New Music

Most people are aware of who BTS is now. One of the most popular k-pop groups in the US, they are known for having an extremely dedicated fanbase. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that their song “Butter” was basically immovable at number one for months. It’s been described as a song that injects pure joy into a stressful, angsty season. “In their boastful and bouncy second English-language single, our winter-issue cover guys get just cocky enough to show us they know they’re killing it, yet still name-check ARMY to remind us they know who got them there” (Source).

The group also released a compilation album “The Best” which hit number one in Japan's Oricon Chart and went on to become the first ever Korean male group to surpass 1 million albums mark in Japan alone and also had the biggest first week sales for an album in Japan in 2021.

Ice Nine Kills Returned with a Sequel Album

After the massive success of their first horror inspired album The Silver Scream, it made sense for Ice Nine Kills to come back with more horror in their latest release Welcome to Horrorwood: The Silver Scream 2. It can be hard to come back with a “sequel” to an album concept that’s already been done, but Ice Nine Kills were able to elevate things and come back with a kickass album.

Releasing on October 15, Welcome to Horrorwood: The Silver Scream 2 takes a formula and still finds a way to put a creative spin and update to it. The record debuted at No.18 on the Billboard 200 chart, the highest first week of their career. It’s a great album to check out, especially if you’re a fan of horror movies. Some of the movies covered on this album include Hellraiser, Cabin Fever, Pet Sematary, and Psycho.

girl in red Released if i could make it go quiet

Marie Ulven, more widely known as girl in red, is a beloved Norwegian queer artist. She’s especially loved within the LGBTQ community. Her singles created a lot of buzz online, so her debut album was very well-received. Ulven is always very straightforward and honest about her pain, and this made her debut album if i could make it go quiet, stand out. Her sharp self-awareness is refreshing too. Something well-loved in this album is that she sings from different perspectives in the same song (for example, the one feeling like a relationship is one-sided vs the one losing interest) because she’s been in both positions. Reviewer Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis said about this facet of the album, “This awareness is a theme throughout the album, whether it concerns love, feelings or mental health.”

The album came out in May of this year and charted at #67 in the Billboard 200 and #2 in the Norwegian charts where the singer is from. Her beautifully honest vocals are definitely worth a listen, especially for fans of Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift.

Knocked Loose Surprise Dropped an EP

After teasing something was coming on their social media, fans were buzzing. They figured a tour announcement or new merchandise were being dropped. Fans had already theorized that based on other posts, that a new Knocked Loose EP would be coming out in December. Fans were not expecting the EP, A Tear in the Fabric of Life to in fact drop just days after teasing it on October 13th.

With the EP drop came a companion short film created by Swedish filmmaker Magnus Jonsson. The EP is the band’s first attempt at a concept album, focusing wholly on grief and the levels a person is willing to go through to get rid of it. The filmmaker worked to create a central character based on Garris’ narrative for something hypnotizing and horrifying at the same time. Released on YouTube before even being put on streaming services forced fans to experience it for the first time with the film, which works effectively to set the tone and story. Leaning into heavier deathcore roots, the band is showing just how much they’ve matured musically since their inception as a band in 2014.

Watch the short film/listen to the EP here.

Some other great releases we want to give a shoutout to include...

Vanisha Gould and Lucy Yeghiazaryan released their new collaborative album In Her Words

Adele Released Her Comeback Single, "Easy On Me" and Album, 30

Sierra Ferrel Released Long Time Coming

Joshua Banbury and Kevin Sherwin Released Forgotten Folklore

Billie Eilish Released Happier Than Ever

Helen Sung Released Quartet +

Bruno Mars Released an Album with Anderson .Paak and Silk Sonic

You can watch the video for “Leave the Door Open” here

Samara Joy released her debut album Samara Joy

Twenty One Pilots Released Scaled and Icy

Professor Cunningham and His Old School Released The Lockdown Blues

Pasquale Grasso Released Two Albums: Solo Ballads and Pasquale Plays Duke

Cory Wong Releases Cory and the Wongnotes

As you can tell from this list, 2021 was a huge year for releases. With live performances returning midway through this year, it makes sense why so many artists would have used the time away from live shows to prepare new music. This year was an incredible year for releases, and it’s shown us just how passionate musicians are and how ready they are to get back out there, from all genres. And, while it’s impossible to include every 2021 release, we hope you found our list a worthy one to view! What was your favorite release of 2021? Was it an artist that we listed? Sound off in the comments! And here’s to another great year of music in 2022!


Written by Kristen Petronio


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