Like I said last year, I feel weird doing end of year rankings for music, TV or video games. Sure, it’s all my opinion anyway, but I feel like I miss out on so many things that I could eventually come to call my favourites. So again, we’re doing this. I’m not ranking the best stuff I heard or played this year, I’m just talking quite in depth about a few things I loved and then throwing some extra love around as well for good measure after. Sound good? Good. Let us begin.
I could have told you last year that Lorde’s new album would be my favourite album of 2021. And here we are, surprise, it is. With Pure Heroine and Melodrama, Lorde created the soundtrack to my time at University. She gets the agony and the ecstasy of being a young adult in ways that few artists do, at least for me. And so naturally Solar Power, her first album since 2017, was an album that I had been hotly anticipating. What I hadn’t anticipated was the change in emotional tone. We’ll get more into the whole album in a minute, including the sections of it that don’t fit what I’m about to say, but it feels like talking to a friend you haven’t seen in a while. They’ve been struggling with their mental health for years but you ask them how they are and they smile. They pause for a moment and say “you know, I’m actually really good”. And you both know that they mean it.
That change in tone is what has made Solar Power a somewhat divisive album, with Lorde celebrating her newfound confidence in the life she has found. Take the title track as an example. It’s a song all about the joys of liberating yourself from the ties of your mobile phone or the expectations society puts on you, kicking loose and vibing out in the sun. It is a lot of fun, and also often cheeky with lines like “I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus”. You can sense the joy Lorde feels emanating through her music in ways that even her most joyous songs before couldn’t do. No, it’s not the most comforting feeling in the world if you’ve had an absolutely awful time this year, but as someone who has been able to find joy it works for me.
She’s still attuned to emotional complexities though, which the song “California” highlights. It’s a song about moving away from the toxic world that Los Angeles can create, as well as being a metaphor for an old relationship. She’s talking about moving away from “that California love”, something that is undeniably the right move but that comes accompanied with sensory triggers of all those good moments. At its best, the song is melancholic, accepting the need to move on from a moment which is fun but certain to be fleeting. Other songs on the album acknowledge this too, like “The Man With the Axe”, a song about still falling in love through all the red flags that are visible. Lorde has always been good at making songs with complex emotional layers hidden under cheery exteriors, and Solar Power is another album still full of those songs.
Solar Power is a 40 minute plea from Lorde not to let her be the voice of a generation and yet ironically she pleas in a way that once again speaks to and for millions of voices.
But then it’s also an album that is ready to rip your heart out at the right moment. The absolute song of the album, I think even my song of the year, is “Stoned at the Nail Salon”. Like I said, Solar Power is an album about being happy with the place where you’ve found yourself, but “Stoned” is a song about this terrifying fear that everything you’ve worked towards is wrong. This whole world you spent so much time and effort building and making completely concrete might not be the dream you want to live forever. It’s a song haunted by the ghosts of the past, visions of “two former hell raisers” threatening to ruin the tranquillity of now. It also features the absolutely devastating line “all the music you love at 16 you’ll grow out of” which as a 22 year old is starting to prove more and more true. Lorde being only a few years older than me, her lyrics can’t help but speak to the equivalent moment in my life. So even though I don’t really have it all sorted out right now, the idea this song posits of creating your dream life and still being unhappy terrifies me.
There is a sense that Lorde is the voice of a generation, specifically the one I find myself in. I know this sense exists, because I have called her exactly this on many occasions. But I think the genius of Solar Power is that it’s an album on which Lorde explicitly denies this responsibility. If “Leader of the New Regime” doesn’t convince you, with its pleas for someone to take over this world in which paranoia reigns supreme, the final lines on the album should convince you. As “Oceanic Feeling” fades out on a quiet note, lazing on the beach that so much of this album revolved around, Lorde sings “I’ll know when it’s time to / Take off my robes and step into the choir.” Solar Power is a 40 minute plea from Lorde not to let her be the voice of a generation and yet ironically she pleas in a way that once again speaks to and for millions of voices. Pure Heroine was the album for people whose blood has just started rushing, Melodrama the album for that blood being shed, but Solar Power is the album to let that blood finally cool down, “wherever that leads.” For my life and for hers, I think I am now ready for whatever this all leads onto.
Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice – A close second favourite album this year, Blue Weekend is everything I want from a rock album. It kicks ass, breaks your heart and has only gotten better the more I’ve listened to it this year. Blast it loud, blast it now.
Daddy’s Home by St. Vincent – In hindsight, of course St. Vincent was going to struggle to top Masseduction, but Daddy’s Home is a valiant attempt. It goes all in on evoking the coolness and griminess of the seventies and is all the better for it.
Sour by Olivia Rodrigo – I’m not a teenager with a broken heart, but I still act like I am, so of course I loved Sour. It’s an incredible debut from Rodrigo and one that promises more excellence to come, whether her heart is broken again or not.
Long Lost by Lord Huron – There’s always been a Twin Peaks vibe from Lord Huron but they embrace it completely on Long Lost, climaxing with a fourteen minute instrumental song that might as well be made by Angelo Badalamenti. Of course I loved it.
Civilisation by Kero Kero Bonito – This album has to be on the list, if only because seeing it performed live this year is one of my most memorable nights of the year. Kero Kero Bonito were the only band I saw live in 2021, but it was such a high bar to clear that I’m glad I didn’t give any other artists a look in.
Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast – Thank you to everyone this year who has attempted to rehabilitate my taste in music, this album is a stand in for all the new discoveries I made. In particular, Jubilee is an album George recommended me and that I’ve loved walking to all year. I listen to it, think of him and smile.
Home Video by Lucy Dacus – Home Video is here entirely because of the song “Brando”. No song has ever made me feel so picked apart as this one, analysing all the ways that I am a shitty person romantically, despite the fact Lucy Dacus and I have never met. It’s incredible.
Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish – The first time I listened to this album, I was pretty apathetic for the first half. But then the last four songs happen. They completely recontextualise the album and deliver an incredible emotional punch that I am happy to suffer over and over again.
Woman on the Internet by Orla Gartland – Orla Gartland has been releasing music that knocks my socks off for a while, first with her Why Am I Like This? EP and then “Did It To Myself” broke my heart in Normal People. Her debut album delivers on everything those incredible projects promised.
star-crossed by Kacey Musgraves – Following on from Golden Hour, an album all about how happy Musgraves’ marriage makes her, we have star-crossed, an album all about her divorce. It’s a hard emotional turn, but one that pays off in all its complicated reflection.
You Signed Up For This by Maisie Peters – I don’t mean to sound cruel when I say this, but I’m not a big fan of Peters’ online presence. However, her music makes me forget all that, with densely written songs that evoke the best of Taylor Swift.
Seventeen Going Under by Sam Fender – Sam Fender is Bruce Springsteen from the north of England. His appeal is that simple. He has great talent on a guitar but also an anger in many of his songs, an anger that is very specifically targeted, but always at things that are universal for young British listeners. Try not to love the guy.
An Evening with Silk Sonic by Silk Sonic – I’ve never really liked Bruno Mars, but on teaming up with Anderson .Paak, he has created the grooviest record of the year. It is banger after banger after banger, all soaked in serious style.