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”

Squirrel Flower Burns Rubber on New LP Planet (i)

musician Squirrel Flower, wearing a denim jacket, stands partially turned away from the camera, with bright glare from the sun partially obscuring the image
musician Squirrel Flower, wearing a denim jacket, stands partially turned away from the camera, with bright glare from the sun partially obscuring the image
Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen

“I feel like I’m like a hedonist,” says Ella Williams, the mastermind behind whimsically-named alt-pop project Squirrel Flower. “I just allow my impulses and my desires to affect the actions I take.”

She’s discussing the beating heart track of her newest album, Planet (i), out June 25th on Polyvinyl. “Flames and Flat Tires” is one of the record’s most untethered tracks, with a sense of looseness and levity that contrasts with some of the album’s darker moments. And while the character in “Flames” isn’t explicitly Williams, she isn’t denying that sometimes she feels like she, too, is hurtling through life with her foot on the gas. 

“[‘Flames’] is partially inspired by this novella by an author named Torrey Peters,” she explains. “It’s called Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones. It’s like a queer, trans apocalypse story, and it takes place in Iowa, and the first couple scenes are this person on I-80 Iowa in this fucked-up car that they’re trying to like, fix themselves.” 

Planet seems to be quite taken with the things we can’t fix ourselves — natural disasters, busted cars, narcissistic people — but it’s not meant to be fatalistic. “[Planet is] not an apocalypse album because ‘apocalypse’ implies one event that changes the earth and makes it uninhabitable,” Williams says. “I think it’s just that we’re kind of living in an ongoing apocalypse, and in that are both moments of incredible utopia and moments of actual full-on disaster. And I think acknowledging both of those as things that happen at the same time is a huge point of the album.”

While disaster has certainly been the flavor of the past year and a half, Williams has been immersing herself as much as she can with the music scene in Chicago, where she recently moved. “I’ve been going to a lot of techno raves,” she says with palpable excitement. “It’s [these] incredible moments of utopia that I was talking about — just like very queer spaces and beautiful community spaces and dancing and techno, and it’s so sick.”

Williams moved to Chicago in part to be closer to her bandmates, but the opportunity to get to know a delicious new scene was undeniable. “I first went to a DIY show in Boston when I was sixteen,” she recalls. “From there it just like took over my life and changed my life and changed the way that I thought about music and [how I] thought music could work.” Williams emphatically credits the Boston music scene as instrumental to her journey as an artist — as well as the scene in Iowa and her experience recording Planet in London.

While the constant moving and adjusting can be difficult, Williams feels she has some precedent for living her life the way she does, mainly inspired by her grandfather, Jay Williams, who was a writer, Vaudeville performer, and “card-carrying Commie,” and his wife Bobby, a community organizer. “Every time I’m like, ‘damn — it would be nice to have like a little more money or a little more stability and not be living in like five different places every year’… I think about the way my ancestors have lived, which is very transient and allowing art and music and love and connections and relationships to guide them through life, as opposed to anything else,” Williams says.

While the overarching lyrical themes on Planet certainly reflect this transiency, there are a few small moments that approach it from a different angle — lead single “Hurt a Fly” and “Deluge in the South” both detail the experience of searching for refuge in other people, specifically in their homes. “But then I showed up at your door/With my head in my hands/And you took me in,” laments the narcissistic partner Williams channeled in the former, while she promises “I will take you in/Wrap you up again,” in the latter. While the two songs are not specifically connected, the concept of constructing home where you can, with what and who you can, is classic apocalypse.

But like Williams said, this is no apocalypse album. If anything, it’s simply observational. As a function of her DIY ethos, Williams has been rather boots to the ground since 2015, when she self-released her first EP, Early Winter Songs from Middle America. But even after her much-praised label debut (2020’s I Was Born Swimming, on Polyvinyl) Williams wasn’t allowed much distraction, instead finding herself stuck in quarantine with little to do but process everything she had experienced on her last self-booked tour. “I got home and had just like seen all of this really insane shit. I saw the desert in California for the first time and I was driving through Missouri and there was so much flooding that it looked like we were like driving through this field of glass, and there were billboards and trains going through and coming out of the water, and it was so nuts. Just like, insane storms after shows.” 

Williams is very preoccupied with weather and the power of water on Planet. It gets mentioned on almost every single track, most notably on “Desert Wildflowers.” “I’m another piece of debris/Flying above the town/Closer to the stars than I am to the ground,” she coos before the song’s central manifesto: “I’m not scared of the water/The rain is my parent and I am the daughter.”

“Desert” was the first song she wrote for the record. That songwriting session must have been some kind of unconscious preparation for things to come, as the song feels like an affirmation in the form of a lilting lullaby, like some part of Williams knew it was time to face the particular fears — or strengths, depending on how you look at them — that drape Planet like tapestries. 

“I got home and the song just came out,” she says. “And I kind of just rolled with it.” She wrote so much, in fact, that there is a whole other Planet album that exists somewhere in the stratosphere, or in some hidden folder on Williams’s computer. Call it Planet (ii), or call it the ghost album — either way, Williams doesn’t have any plans to release those songs any time soon. But it does haunt her in some ways, as ghosts tend to do. “Is the music only what’s shared with other people?” Williams asks. “Or is the music what you make and experience with yourself and your process?” Williams has plenty of time to keep looking for the answer, no matter where it takes her in her busted-up car.

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