This past year, the world gradually transitioned back to a state closer resembling life as we once knew it. The pandemic, however, has an ameliorated yet continued impact, and healing, motivating music remains essential for many people to make it through the day. These five albums released in 2021 offer listeners a beacon of light and hope in hard, vulnerable times — and, if not that, at least a little fun.
Things Take Time, Take Time by Courtney Barnett
This album is full of the most patient and harmonious melodies to come out of 2021. From an isolated and depressing life during the pandemic, Barnett still manages to include amusing, inspirational details, delivering them through sometimes idiosyncratic but always poetic lyrics. Her artistry is also conveyed through skillfully orchestrated, minimalist instrumentation. This folk album is doubtlessly unmissable for its relaxing and delightful music that one can dance to alone in kitchens and bedrooms.
In These Silent Days by Brandi Carlile
The physical disconnectedness brought upon by the pandemic facilitates reflection, and in this album, Carlile also suggests that self-consciousness and empathy are crucial for a meaningful life. While she forgives others on her last album, By the Way, I Forgive You, she herself strives for forgiveness in this latest work. Carlile is an undeniably powerful vocalist, and her vocals shine with an unprecedented degree of honesty and vulnerability on this record. This record still features her signature beautiful piano and guitar ballads, but it also explores a new artistic edge for her by absorbing more inspiration from rock music.
Blue Banisters by Lana Del Rey
Lana’s second album in 2021, Blue Banisters, marks yet another peak of her artistry. Tracks such as “Arcadia” and “Sweet Carolina” glimmer with exquisite, captivating songwriting. She talks about a variety of topics: nostalgia, romance, urban life and social change. She exhibits great wisdom with her simplistic instrumentation and poignant lyrics, bringing insight and compassion in her approach to these issues. The girl who once lusted and died for love is long gone. Her music is now more mature and elegant, grounded in her dire concerns for contemporary social breakdown and cultural loss.
30 by Adele
Five years after the release of her last record, this latest album by Adele is about heartbreak and recovery. It records her struggle to move on from her divorce to a new life. Adele’s affectionate, powerful vocals make this album especially striking and touching — she is sincere and vulnerable. Her struggles to overcome her misfortune and regain the courage to love both herself and others become more resonant than ever in the context of pandemic. In addition to the heart-wrenching ballads she’s well known for, this record offers amusing dance pop and choir-accompanied soul music. In a word, 30 is her best to date.
A Beginner’s Mind by Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine
This album, unlike the other five albums listed here, offers an escape from reality. Inspired by indie-folk music and various films, the record has simple lyrics yet a much deeper layer of symbolic meaning emerges upon a second or a third listen. The adoption of the Buddhist concept of “the beginner’s mind” inspires listeners to abandon any excessive desire or a cynical mentality. With skillfully furnished instrumentation and exquisite songwriting, the composition of this record is so rich that it impresses listeners upon their first listen and withstands a more thorough, careful study. Its luster is sure to remain long after 2021.
The five records listed in this playlist appeal to listeners in different ways and come from a variety of musical genres. Despite this diversity, all of them offer illuminating lessons of how to lead a meaningful life during the isolated and sometimes depressing times of pandemic, or more simply, to have a little fun with the headphones on.