AF 2021 IN REVIEW: Our Favorite Albums & Singles of The Year

If you went into 2021 with high expectations, you weren’t alone. Even if it was hard to feel optimistic this time last year, it certainly seemed as if things could get no worse. Live music did return, after all – though with the appearance of Delta, and now Omicron, the joyful noise comes with a caveat. After sixteen months of having to livestream shows (fun, but not the same) little could stop me from attending shows in person; wearing a mask as an extra precaution felt like no big deal, even if no one else was doing it. But luck (and vaccines) feel like the real reason I emerged unscathed from dozens of risky experiences, and with performances on the horizon canceled once again, maybe it’s wise to enter 2022 with slightly lower expectations.

There’s always recorded music, anyhow. Maybe the tumult of the year just has me personally feeling a bit unfocused, but it seems as though I barely scaled the mountain of this year’s musical offerings without getting a bit buried in the avalanche of releases – ones that had been pushed back, ones that were created in lockdown. I’ll be playing catch up well into the new year, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t gems I connected with almost immediately, and very deeply. And that’s what I’ve heard across the board, from those in the industry as well as casual music fans – is that our favorites this year stayed on heavy rotation, as we latched onto music that accurately reflected our moods, which evolved moment to moment and of course happened to be different for all of us at any given time. What does that mean for year-end lists? Audiofemme has always compiled an eclectic list, including favorites from each of our contributors without overall rank – consider any repeats to be the best of the best. But this year, the list seems even more diverse, meaning there’s a wealth of weird and wonderful music below to discover, dear reader. Thanks for sticking with us through another wild year.


  • Marianne White (Executive Director)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) PinkPantheress – to hell with it
      2) Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
      3) Low – Hey What
      4) Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
      5) Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
      6) Dawn Richard – Second Line: An Electro Revival
      7) Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
      8) aya – im hole
      9) Flock of Dimes – Head of Roses
      10) Tyler, the Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
    • Top 5 Singles:
      1) Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”
      2) Loraine James (feat. Eden Samara) – “Running Like That”
      3) Hand Habits – “More Than Love”
      4) Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen – “Like I Used To”
      5) Julien Baker – “Faith Healer (Half Waif Remix)”

  • Lindsey Rhoades (Editor-in-Chief)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) Low – Hey What
      2) Tirzah – Colourgrade
      3) Nana Yamato – Before Sunrise
      4) Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell
      5) Jane Weaver – Flock
      6) Tonstartssbandht – Petunia
      7) Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
      8) Squirrel Flower – Planet (i)
      9) Veik – Surrounding Structures
      10) Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
    • Top 10 Singles:
      1) Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen – “Like I Used To”
      2) Special Interest – “All Tomorrow’s Carry”
      3) Squid – “G.S.K.”
      4) Julien Baker – “Bloodshot”
      5) Mandy, Indiana – “Bottle Episode”
      6) Remember Sports – “Pinky Ring”
      7) Cedric Noel – “Comuu”
      8) Gustaf – “Mine”
      9) June Jones – “Therapy”
      10) MAN ON MAN – “Stohner”

  • Mandy Brownholtz (Marketing Director)
    • Top 5 Albums (in no particular order):
      Spellling – The Turning Wheel
      King Woman – Celestial Blues
      Macy Rodman – Unbelievable Animals
      Marissa Nadler – The Path of the Clouds
      Kinlaw – The Tipping Scale
    • Top 3 Singles (in no particular order):
      Often – “Deep Sleep”
      Mannequin Pussy – “Control”
      Spice – “A Better Treatment”


  • Alexa Peters (Playing Seattle)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) Wye Oak – Cut All The Wires: 2009-2011
      2) Dori Freeman – Ten Thousand Roses
      3) Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning
      4) Fawn Wood – Kåkike
      5) Carmen Q. Rothwell – Don’t Get Comfy / Nowhere
    • Honorable Mention: Mike Gebhart – Co-Pilot 
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Doja Cat (feat. SZA) – “Kiss Me More”
      2) Mitski – “Working for the Knife”
      3) DoNormaal – “Baby May”

  • Cat Woods (Playing Melbourne)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Deap Vally – Marriage
      2) Mod Con – Modern Condition
      3) Laura Stevenson – Laura Stevenson
      4) Joan As Police Woman – The Solution is Restless
      5) Black Country, New Road – For the first time
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Black Country, New Road – “Sunglasses”
      2) Lana Del Rey – “Dealer”
      3) jennylee – “Tickles”

  • Liz Ohanesian (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Hackedepicciotto — The Silver Threshold
      2) Saint Etienne — I’ve Been Trying to Tell You
      3) L’impératrice — Take Tsubo
      4) Pearl and the Oysters— Flowerland
      5) Nuovo Testamento — New Earth
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Midnight Magic – “Beam Me Up” 
      2) Jessie Ware – “Please”
      3) Gabriels – “Love and Hate in a Different Time (Kerri Chandler Remix)”  

  • Gillian G. Gaar (Musique Boutique)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Dolphin Midwives — Body of Water
      2) Sarah McQuaid — The St. Buryan Sessions
      3) Low — Hey What 
      4) Witch Camp — I’ve Forgotten Now Who I Used to Be 
      5) Full Bush — Movie Night
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Maggie Herron — “Sweet Lullaby”
      2) Sleater-Kinney — “High in the Grass”
      3) ONETWOTHREE — “Give Paw” 

  • Jason Scott (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Jetty Bones – Push Back
      2) M.A.G.S. – Say Things That Matter
      3) Lyndsay Ellyn – Queen of Nothing
      4) Kacey Musgraves – star-crossed
      5) Christian Lopez – The Other Side
    • Top 5 Singles:
      1) Hayes Carll – “Help Me Remember”
      2) Jake Wesley Rogers – “Middle of Love”
      3) Adele – “To Be Loved”
      4) Carly Pearce – “What He Didn’t Do”
      5) Kacey Musgraves – “what doesn’t kill me”

  • Michelle Rose (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Alex Orange Drink – Everything Is Broken, Maybe That’s O​.​K.
      2) Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
      3) Kacey Musgraves – star-crossed
      4) Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World
      5) Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Blonder – “Ice Cream Girl” 
      2) Mitski – “The Only Heartbreaker”
      3) Kristiane – “Better On Your Own”  

  • Victoria Moorwood (Playing Cincy)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Polo G – Hall of Fame
      2) Benny the Butcher & Harry Fraud – The Plugs I Met 2
      3) Megan Thee Stallion – Something For Thee Hotties
      4) Pooh Shiesty – Shiesty Sessions
      5) blackbear – misery lake
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Benny the Butcher & Harry Fraud – “Thanksgiving”
      2) Lil Nas X (feat. Jack Harlow)  – “INDUSTRY BABY”
      3) 24kGoldn (feat. Future) – “Company”

  • Jamila Aboushaca (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Kacey Musgraves – star-crossed
      2) Snoh Aalegra – Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies 
      3) Lil Nas X – Montero
      4) Darkside – Spiral
      5) Blu DeTiger – How Did We Get Here EP
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Kaytranada (feat. H.E.R.) – “Intimidated”
      2) Kacey Musgraves – “simple times”
      3) Snoh Aalegra – “In Your Eyes”

  • Sophia Vaccaro (Playing the Bay)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Aly & AJ – A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun
      2) Julia Wolf – Girls in Purgatory (Full Moon Edition)
      3) Megan Thee Stallion – Something For Thee Hotties
      4) Lil Mariko – Lil Mariko
      5) Destroy Boys – Open Mouth, Open Heart
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) daine – “dainecore”
      2) Julia Wolf – “Villain”
      3) Doja Cat – “Need To Know”

  • Sam Weisenthal (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
      2) Katy Kirby – Cool Dry Place
      3) Mega Bog – Life, and Another
      4) Ada Lea – one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden
      5) Olivia Kaplan – Tonight Turns to Nothing
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Charlotte Cornfield – “Drunk For You” 
      2) Dora Jar – “Multiply”
      3) Joe Taylor Sutkowski, Dirt Buyer – “What Luck, Goodbye”  

  • Sara Barron (Playing Detroit)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) PinkPantheress – to hell with it
      2) Summer Walker – Still Over It
      3) Erika de Casier – Sensational
      4) Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
      5) Adele – 30
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Lana Del Rey – “Dealer”
      2) Liv.e – “Bout It”
      3) SZA – “I Hate U”

  • Eleanor Forrest (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
      2) CL – ALPHA
      3) My Life As Ali Thomas – Peppermint Town
      4) Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
      5) Remember Sports – Like a Stone
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) FKA twigs (feat. Central Cee) – “Measure of a Man”
      2) Sabriel – “Pulse”
      3) Lexie Liu – “有吗炒面 ALGTR”

Ada Lea Maps Memories Across Montreal on Sophomore LP

Photo Credit: Monse Muro

On September 24, Alexandra Levy – known by the musical moniker Ada Lea – released her sophomore LP one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden via Saddle Creek Records. Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Marshall Vore, guitarist Harrison Whitford (both of Phoebe Bridgers’ band), and mixing engineer Burke Reid (Courtney Barnett), the album provides listeners a new perspective on an artist whose 2019 debut LP what we say in private had previously established her as a pillar in the contemporary indie scene. 

A practice in long form storytelling, Ada Lea’s latest effort renders a handful of vignettes noteworthy enough to make up the essence of a singular year split evenly into four seasons, beginning with a fateful New Year’s Eve party depicted in “damn.” As the album unfolds, each song becomes a benchmark in a nonlinear devotion to documenting the happenings of a year in Levy’s life. Levy claims that “the narrative definitely took precedence over anything,” a sentiment which can be felt through the lyrical character building felt throughout. Here, duality creates intrigue – no character is any one thing, but a myriad of moments and desires which conflict with themselves tenderly and honestly.

The album, in part, is a commentary on how to get closer to time and its passing through revisiting physical locations. Set in the St Denis area of Montreal where Levy grew up, the physical release of the record includes a map marked with a corresponding location for each song. “partner” is set in the diner a heartbroken lover revisits to remember the glare of neon lights that shone down on her during a break up. “oranges” is centered on a house with a landing where two old friends shared cigarettes and wine, reminiscing of better times. On “saltspring,” the narrator goes back to an island to see names once written in the sand now washed away. Listeners can get a sense of Levy traversing a physical map as a way to conceive of memories from another time and even compare them to the present. One year is different from another, sure, but that difference is legitimized by the ways our relationships change, and how our feelings on those relationships shift with distance. 

Levy and Vore were going for “rich, warm, chorus-y tones” which can be felt on each track regardless of structure. “[Marshall] had a pretty clear idea of what he was envisioning tonally, so it was just a matter of ‘dialing it in,’ as they say in the biz,” says Levy. “Some effects were baked into the tracks during the sessions with Marshall, but Burke Reid, who mixed the record, really brought the songs to this gorgeous place.” There’s something exciting about an artist who allows the environment and sound of a song to build the character in question as much as the lyrics. This happens subtly in Ada Lea’s work, leaving plenty of room for listeners to fall into the feelings she wants to evoke, beckoned quietly into the world built by each song without being told how to feel.

There’s a particularly interesting dynamic at work on album tracks “backyard” and “writer in ny.” With vocals that sound flattened and distant, “backyard” is about choosing to stay in one place and learn the ins and outs of it, a nod to the joys of familiarity and how watching things change over time develops attachments and understandings. “There is something to be said/About growing up in the neighbourhood/And then staying in that neighbourhood/Even when you finally could leave and explore other places near or far/But you chose to stay in the place you grew up,” Levy sings in the song’s opening lines, a distinct sentimentality in her delivery.

Immediately following, “writer in ny” embodies a craving for change based on fantasies attached to highly romanticized locations. The chorus goes, “Cause nothing’s gonna bring me down/If I never had it anyway/I’ll be a writer in New York/Winter in L.A.” Well aware of its cliché, these lines are heavy with the weight of believing that happiness can only be found in these ‘ideal’ ways of life, in these ‘ideal’ locations. And so two things can be true at once – we can flourish wherever we’re planted, marking our growth easily in familiar surroundings, while also yearning for growth and expansiveness elsewhere.

“On one hand you’re moving forward, you’re in motion, but your other hand is gripping to memories and roots – somehow wanting to be in control, yet reaching for the impossible at the same time,” Levy says of this “push and pull.” That concept echoes through the album’s title, with its play on words (using “sewing” as an alternative to “sowing”) signifying the way language can twist our intentions.

Throughout one hand… we are given insight into characters introduced in Ada Lea’s previous work. We see and feel that critical moments have transpired that have changed these people for better and for worse. And true to reality, not every moment could have been foretold. Levy’s greatest inspiration, author Elena Ferrante, says that the best writing brings “Unexpected events, meaningful contradictions, sudden swerves in the language, in the psychology of the characters.” For me, the most intriguing part of this album is the way Levy forgives the humanness of her characters, how she continues to love them and be loved by them, regardless of their mistakes and their daydreaming. It’s as honest as it is heartbreaking, and like life it continues to unfold as quickly as time allows.

No moving to a new city, going back to an old lover, or reminiscing on drunken parties will slow that roll, but Levy manages to document her life and the lives of those around her well enough that change feels less like a loss and more like an opportunity for the upheaval of unending doldrums. Mid-album instrumental track “and my newness spoke to your newness and it was a thing of endless,” a slightly variable guitar loop with a soft, warm hum throughout, explains best how fast and bottomless one year can be – especially when in the company of a loved one, reborn endlessly into one another’s newfangled selves.

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