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  • Writer's pictureScott Mordell

Just for Fun — 2021 Top New Music Plays

Welcome to my 2021 top new music play lists. I prepare this every year to connect with friends.

While all art forms are ultimately different expressions of human experiences, I especially like to follow new music. It helps me stay current with evolving perspectives and trends … and it is so much fun!

There are some interesting trends in music this year:

  • Artists now make more money touring than through album sales or streaming royalties. There is a huge backlog of albums still to be released since bands have been generally unable to tour with their new music. 2022 should be more of a flood of music that demonstrates creativity from the lock-downs.

  • The pandemic has been hard. It seems everyone has a break-up album.

  • Gen Z is running to pop-punk and emo. The revival of the music of 1995–2005 is real. And guitars are very prevalent and not rubbed out by technology as some feared.

  • A speak-singing vocal style is evolving which reflects a generation that’s grown up with rap.

  • There is so much diversity in the music now reaching audiences — women, people of color and LGTBQ artists are all more prominent now. If art leads culture, we are trending towards broader inclusion.

  • Tik Tok is changing the music industry. New and direct ways for artists to evolve and build audiences based on their content not their “label’.

  • With attention toward songs and new platforms for music, albums are getting shorter with blurred distinctions among categories of singles, EPs and mixtapes.

  • All of this means that traditional music genres are blending together too. Music is harder to categorize than ever, so we can just listen with an open mind rather than pre-judgement.

There is too much new music released every year for anyone to hear it all, so I enjoy sharing my music “finds” with others who might appreciate them. I am not a musician and certainly not an artful music critic. I am just someone who likes what he likes and respects others may feel differently.

My list of top new music albums for 2021 is provided below. A second list of new artists to follow in 2022 will follow separately. There is so much good music out right now, it is more digestible this way.

My bias in these lists are toward newer artists and toward albums as a body of work I find interesting and enjoyable enough to listen many times. While there are so many great songs and “one-hit” wonders in a year, my focus here is on the artist and their expression over multiple songs.

As art typically does, much of this year’s music reflects the angst of the times. While there is some great art in the anger, I just don’t dwell there with repeat listens. That leaves out some great art and music, but hey, it’s my list ;)

So, here we go. If you find the time, open your heart, your mind, your attention and give ’em a listen. Music touches people differently. You may not like it all, but hopefully, you discover some music you had not enjoyed previously.

You can easily sample all the artists on the Spotify playlist below (>4 hours of fun) or otherwise go to the Spotify and Apple Music links for each specific album.

Please let me know what you think! If I missed some new music that you liked during 2021 or if you like a particular genre and would like some other recommendations, please message me. I enjoy checking out your “finds” too.

Best wishes throughout 2022. We are blessed in so many ways.


Scott Mordell

Top New Music of 2021

30. A Feel good two-fer … We spent plenty of time in the sun this summer, so here are two albums of laid-back summer vibes that do well on repeat with a beverage in hand.

Niko Moon, “Good Time” Georgia native Niko Moon made his name writing songs for Zac Brown Band, Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts and now has this upbeat album which does indeed serve up a good time. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

Easy Life, “Life’s A Beach” This band from Leicester, England ruminates genre-blurring, sun-drenched debut album. The Leicester band breezily contemplates modern living and mental health. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

29. Illenium, “Fallen Embers”

Nick Miller, known as Illenium, was born in Chicago. He is a melodic sad boy that finds a great EDM meets rock meets pop crossover point. This album garnered a Grammy nomination for best dance/electronic album and has over 400 million streams on Spotify. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

28. Self Esteem, “Prioritise Pleasure”

This second indie-pop album from UK artist Rebecca Lucy Taylor embraces gender empowerment with direct and provocative songs set to driving, anthemic beats. She was awarded BBC Music Introducing’s Artist of the Year for 2021. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

27. PinkPantheress, “To Hell With It”

Gemma Victoria Walker is a 20-year-old British university student and producer. She made her name posting song snippets on TikTok, where she has more than a million followers. On this debut mixtape, she builds out those snippets into songs that are very brief and catchy. The songs deal with some heavier themes too, revealing some great potential as she continues making music. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

26. Ray BLK, “Access Denied”

Rita Ekwere, known as Ray BLK, is a British R&B singer and songwriter. In 2019, she opened for Nicki Minaj’s world tour and now has her first album. It is a warm mix of tunes with great vocals, memorable beats and hooks. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

25. Inhaler, “It Won’t Always Be Like This”

This Irish rock band features Elijah Hewson, who also happens to be Bono’s son. Their debut album generally puts a positive spin on the world turned inside out. They have earned very positive reviews from their live performances this year. And yes, you can hear Bono in there too. A fun band to follow. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

24. Maisie Peters, “You Signed Up for This”

The 20-year-old pop artist from Sussex England is a story teller with tales of love gained, love lost and love torched — a little similar to her idol Taylor Swift. This is excellent unapologetic pop — good melodies and beats with a springy spirit. There is nothing childish about this album, though. This is a confident and well-produced album. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

22. Blu DeTiger, “How Did We Get Here?”

This 21-year-old New York-based indie-rock singer/songwriter/producer could be a bass guitar hero for a new generation. She started uploading bass covers on Tik Tok and has grown to a million followers on both Tik Tok and Spotify. Her debut album songs cover a range of topics and have distinctly different soundscapes. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

22. Arlo Parks, “Collapsed in Sunbeams”

The debut from the 21-year-old British singer/songwriter is a gentle affair. More of a subdued album than filled with hooks, but a lot of nuance and excellent lyrics. If you let the songs unfold you will be rewarded. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

21. Manchester Orchestra, “The Million Masks of God”

This indie rock band from Atlanta is led by Andy Hull. Compared to the Tik Tok and Spotify followers listed in the notes above, this band has a tiny audience. Too tiny, really. This band consistently produces great quality music and are fantastic in live shows. This album is themed in the truth that all life and death is uncertainty. The band plays tightly and layers its guitars and vocals among excellent production. A great album from them, again. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

20. Tigress, “Pure Vida”

The British rock band’s debut album is a mix of classic rock, grunge, punk, pop and a little bit of emo too (did I leave any genres out?). Lead singer Katy Jackson sums it up, “I just want to be the voice that lets people know that somebody gets them.” Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

19. Indigo de Souza, Any Shape You Take”

This 24-year-old indie rock musician from North Carolina has created an album that seeks real human connection. None of the songs sound like the other and the songs cruise through and blend genres. It just gets better for me with each listen. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

18. Margo Cilker, “Pohoryville”

The Oregon-based Americana/country debut album is a treat. The songs feel like a vivid conversation of stories more than a lecture and would work well as the soundtrack to a campfire. It seems to end too quickly at 31 minutes, which is a good sign looking forward to the next album. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

17. Charlotte Cardin, “Phoenix”

The Montreal-based electro-pop artist’s debut album highlights her unique vocals. Sometimes she sounds like Adele, other times much more subdued, but always is interesting. The collection of tracks explore relationships, from lust and love to heartache. It all adds to serve the “Phoenix” theme well. She also gets rave reviews in her live performances, so keep on the watch for her coming to your town. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

16. RÜFÜS DU SOL, “Surrender”

This electronic trio from Sydney has made their most accessible album yet. The electronic palette has something to suit every mood and the songs are richer in emotion than I experienced in their other work. I first played this on a long drive and played it repeatedly. I arrived at my destination happy. What else to ask from an album? Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

15. Justin Bieber, “Justice”

OK. I confess I have never been a Bieber fan. I acknowledge the controversy this album generated with the Martin Luther King references and the overreach for societal justice, when the songs were really love letters to his wife. But many of the songs are truly outstanding, and Bieber has been able to convey heartfelt emotion in his songs. The standout tracks here deservedly total billions of streams on Spotify. If you have not been a fan, you might consider a fresh listen. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

14. Japanese Breakfast, “Jubilee”

This is the third album by the indie rock band headed by Korean-American musician, director, and author Michelle Zauner. The first two albums were dark and this one plays much more joyfully. Like a good wine, it gets better and better if you give it room to open up in your listening. Great arrangements, lyrics and production. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

13. Claud, “Claud”

I always look for hometown creativity from Illinois or Michigan, so here comes the first one. 21-year-old Claud Mintz was born in Chicago (now based in Brooklyn) and has released a stellar indie pop album on Phoebe Bridgers new label. These are coming-of-age stories in a bedroom pop style, with great hooks and a wide array of sounds. This album had many, many spins in our house this year. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

12. Valley, “Last Birthday”

The Toronto-based alt-pop quartet have created a very jubilant set of songs here. They have been touring as the opening act for Coin, a band from my previous annual lists. The propelling beats and smooth vocals remind me somewhat of Capital Cities and Saint Motel. It is easy to fall in love with this band. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

11. Morgan Wallen, “Dangerous: The Double Album”

This list is all about the music, and this Tennessee-based country rock/pop artist has released a fantastic album. But he has also been the center of controversy in 2021, with him and his album removed from streaming services, music award nominations and personal appearances. Renowned music industry analyst and critic Bob Lefsetz’ comments are better than my own, “When are we gonna let this guy out of jail? So this ignorant punk uses the N-Word. He’s so dumb and uninformed that he doesn’t realize only Black people can utter it. I’m not defending Wallen, I’m just saying the penalty now outstrips the crime, BY FAR! Turns out, being cancelled didn’t kill his career. He was only more successful, and if it wasn’t in the grooves it wouldn’t be so. Don’t call your friends, don’t get involved in groupthink. I ask, sitting at home, alone, reading this, do you think Morgan Wallen has paid enough and the restrictions should be lifted? And if not, at least listen to “Dangerous,” once. Don’t drop the needle and scowl, check it out, it’ll draw you in, IT’S JUST THAT GOOD!” Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

10. Morgan Wade, “Reckless”

The singer/songwriter from Virginia blends pop and country without playing at the corporate or bubble gum end of the country music spectrum. The production is clean and tight and the mix of electric and acoustic instruments balances well. She is truly authentic and reminds me of Ashley McBryde (also from a previous annual music list). Good to know she is touring with McBryde in 2022. Will make a great show. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

9. Doja Cat, “Planet Her”

Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini is based in Los Angeles and known as Doja Cat, a rapper, singer and songwriter. Her fourth album is a kaleidoscopic of swagger, sweetness, sex, dance and hooks. She also played big on Tik Tok with some of the songs, including the biggest with SZA, “Kiss Me More.” The album works as a whole listen. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

8. Adele, “30”

Adele Adkins may be from London, but she seems to transcend geography and genre now. My guess is she could sing a page from a dictionary and reach millions. This album has been overhyped, though it represents an evolution and the continuing journey everyone is sharing with Adele. Really great. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

7. Little Simz, “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”

Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo, known as Little Simz, is a British-Nigerian rapper and singer. Her fourth album takes us on an epic journey of 19 songs, meant to be listened to loudly, in full and definitely not on shuffle. Theatrical at times, a couple of the songs feel straight from Broadway, in a “Hamilton” sort of way from beginning to end. Simz sums it up, “If 2020 was the year that made introverts of us all, maybe 2021 was an opportunity to recognise that some of those private energies are not only worth protecting, but celebrating.” Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

6. Michigander, “Everything Will Be OK Eventually”

This might be a shock, but indie pop singer Jason Singer is from Michigan. The sound well-written and crafted songs originate in melancholy and then ultimately reach to be uplifting and aspirational. Saw him and his band live at Lollapalooza this year and he may have been the happiest person among 90,000 very happy people. Great show. All their music is worth a listen. Touring with Manchester Orchestra in 2022. A good show if they come near you. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

5. Billy Strings, “Renewal”

This third solo album from Michigan native now based in Nashville is amazing. While he is a highly decorated guitarist and bluegrass musician, this album crosses genres with psychedelia, country, rock ’n’ roll, heavy metal and jam band energy. Yes, the music is a little of everything. The songs and lyrics are fantastic too, as Strings has much to say about heartbreak and addictive tendencies. As a listener, I can sense how the music is liberating. Another performer with an incredible live performance reputation. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

4. girl in red, “if I could make it go quiet”

Norwegian lo-fi artist Marie Ulven scored a hit with her first ever song, I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend, which has since been played 244 million times on Spotify. Her stage name was inspired by the first girl who broke her heart. In this debut album, Ulven has a lot to say and is refreshingly direct in every song, about sex, desire, and even self-loathing. This album arrived early in the year and might have the most plays in our house of all these. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

3. Lucy Dacus, Home Video”

The singer/songwriter based in Philadelphia has released her third and best album. She creates a series of stories rooted in her Richmond, Virginia youth which weave together to create a coming-of-age masterpiece. This is great solo headphone listening. It resonates more with each listen. I would expect this to be one of those albums people are still listening in 10 years. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

2. Joy Oladokun, “in defense of my own happiness”

This is the major label debut for the Nashville-based American singer-songwriter. Oladokun’s music spans the genres of folk, R&B, rock, and pop. The album is a moving collection of poetry and music. If you enjoy Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell or Shawn Colvin, you might especially truly enjoy this album. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

1. Olivia Rodrigo, “SOUR”

The 18-year-old singer/songwriter/actress has released an authentic debut that turned millennials to appreciate nostalgia, pop punk and heartbreak. She made news. She shared her musical influences openly. She sings with nuance. She has range from ballads to pop-punk bangers. Though with just her debut, she is still finding her sound, there is no question she has it. Listen on Spotify or Listen on Apple Music

You can easily sample all the artists on the Spotify playlist below (>4 hours of fun) or otherwise go to the Spotify and Apple Music links for each specific album.


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