Best of 2021: Albums of the Year – Epik High, Japanese Breakfast, Taylor Swift, SHINee, Olivia Rodrigo, NCT, Adele, and more

Best of 2021: Albums of the Year – Epik High, Japanese Breakfast, Taylor Swift, SHINee, Olivia Rodrigo, NCT, Adele, and more

Here we are with Part 3 of Bandwagon's Best of 2021 series: full-length albums.

Our favourite artists certainly kept busy through this pandemic, whether through embarking on tours (that, unfortunately, won't make it to Southeast Asia) or holing up at the studio for fresh tunes. We are, after all, looking toward the better normal, and the best way to get there is to keep on keeping on.

Best of 2021: Collaborations of the Year

This year past year, we were soundtracked by the likes of Olivia Rodrigo, Japanese Breakfast, zild, Taylor Swift, Epik High, SHINee, and you know what, the list goes on.

So, without further ado, here are Bandwagon's Best Albums of 2021:

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Red (Taylor’s Version) - Taylor Swift

Waiting for the re-recording of Red felt like forever. I had the date on my calendar, in my planner, on a post-it note on the wall—then Taylor Swift went around to announce it would be dropping a week early (bless her!).

Instead of going straight to the 10-minute version of ‘All Too Well’ as soon as it was released (like most of my friends did), I headed to the very top with ‘State of Grace’ and carried on from there. It was the best day (my husband was not allowed to disturb me). Red (Taylor's Version) is the perfect getaway from all the crazy that's been going on during these odd times. It takes you back to simpler days, when everything was alright and we just kept dancing like we're 22. - Kara Bodegon-Hikino

30 - Adele

I have never been through a divorce nor am I anywhere close to being 30 but the emotional turmoil this album caused me was colossal. I remember literally counting the days to 30 and the very night it dropped, I locked myself in my room and got ready for a rollercoaster of emotions. 

The album opens with something straight out of a retro Disney movie and it’s so beautiful, setting the right tone for everything you were about to experience. Despite it being Adele’s “most personal album yet”, it was surprisingly not as painful as you’d expect it to be. 

The 12-track album felt more like a cathartic release than the depressive hole we all were probably expecting. While it still carried a whole lot of pain, like with ‘My Little Love’ (which was really difficult to listen to the first couple of times), 30 felt like Adele’s salute and "thank you" to herself for getting through it all. Nonetheless, still a lot of tears. - Franchesca Judine Basbas, Staff Writer

Epik High Is Here 上 ( - Epik High

Epik High returns with their 10th studio album: EPIK HIGH IS HERE 上 (Part 1). In 10 songs, including 'Rosario,' 'Lesson Zero,' and 'Based On A True Story,' and a number of collaborators in the likes of CL, ZICO, HEIZE, B.I., and more, they share their personal struggles with grit and wisdom as they navigate familiar grounds in a world that’s striving to recover every day.

In 2021, we are given a clean slate for reflection and growth. The album offers friendly advice and a reminder that nothing can hinder us from being ourselves. EPIK HIGH IS HERE 上 (Part 1) welcomes change with open arms, a coping mechanism in its pocket, and enough room to process a plethora of emotions. - PB Hermoso, Contributing Writer

Ocean to Ocean - Tori Amos

The four-year wait for this album seemed like it accompanied the tumult of the last few years for me (and possibly others), and its release was like breathing again. For many of us, nature has felt like the only respite through it all, and Tori Amos encapsulates this in the genteel ferocity of her latest offering. She’s an artist who has never had the need to stray away from her original sound, but this is the most reminiscent of her first record, Little Earthquakes, from nearly three decades ago. Ocean to Ocean is peak Tori Amos, but finally undisturbed. It’s a record that feels very much like it draws from the same depths of sorrow that she always has, and takes control of the narrative with the same strength. But this time, it's looking forward even further. As if to say, “I’m still sad, but I’m moving.” - Ginny Palma, Contributing Editor

Universe - NCT

NCT have been extremely busy in 2021, with all three units releasing multiple singles and full-lengths since January. So, it’s quite the feat that their final release for the year—this time as one—managed to be their most astounding and representative album to date. Universe successfully showcased the strengths of all units and the twenty-one participating members in thirteen expertly produced tracks.

In true NCT fashion, there’s plenty of experimentation throughout, and I feel it’s safe to say each one delivered the desired results. The repeat value for the album is also quite high; I’d listened to it four times in succession the night of its release, and thrice more as of writing. This is owed to the natural progression between its distinctive sounds – from the heavily audacious ‘New Axis’, to the infectious and clear fan favourite ‘OK!’, to the unit songs that highlighted their unique charms—all the way to the one-two-three of ‘Sweet Dream’, ‘Good Night’, ‘Beautiful’, which provide such a sweet finishing flourish. While not every song is a standout banger, there’s not one I would throw away. Altogether, Universe the album truly feels like a full immersion into the phenomenal universe of NCT. - Ginny Palma, Contributing Editor

BEST OF 2021: SONGS OF THE YEAR

Turbo - Cory Wong & Dirty Loops

You should never look away when Cory Wong drops a new album (he released four this year alone!), especially when it’s in collaboration with an awesome band like Dirty Loops. It’s only 7 songs long, but it packs the power needed to electrify a house party to life. - Kara Bodegon-Hikino

Jubilee - Japanese Breakfast

While it might be repetitive to state that much of Japanese Breakfast’s past work has revolved around grief and loss, acknowledging this shows the elasticity of Japanese Breakfast’s songwriting. Her third album, Jubilee, comes in a more buoyant form compared to her previous efforts. But not to be mistaken as a “happy album”, despite its title, Jubilee is not about joy and happiness in itself.

Instead, it’s a fruit punch of feelings in journey to it—in 'Paprika', self-actualization; in 'Slide Tackle', grief; in 'Posing in Bondage', a desire for intimacy, in 'Tactics', surrender. All these themes are not new to Japanese Breakfast’s work: lyrically, the tact is still forthcoming and the narrative is still dark, but it’s freed up by the arrangement and production.

The sound of the album steps away from her usual guitar-driven compositions and welcomes new soundscapes—horns, strings, and synths in major, that open up the songs to soaring heights. Jubilee is an example of catharsis in art, a body of work that commits to the artist’s voice and arc while maturing into new, shiny spaces. - Isa Almazan, Contributing Writer

Absolutely - Dijon

An album that’s been brewing since a mysterious, unfortunate split, Dijon has desolation and solitude wound tighter around his fingers, and then some. Barring sporadic EPs and standalone singles that often hinted about yet never directly towards a bigger project in the pipeline, it seemed as though Absolutely came at a time where the introspect had finally come out of many shells for a larger endeavour.

Ahbi//Dijon, various off-kilter collabs, and constant featurettes meant the artist kept active, but in his first studio album, the singer displays a propensity to finally weave his own magic all together in a beautiful and delicate bowtie, leaning in instead of changing lanes. And the results are stunning—Absolutely is a major showing of spirituality, self-reflection, lost love and existentialism, and Duenas’ creations are vocal gospel. - Leland Tan, Associate Editor

An Evening with Silk Sonic - Silk Sonic

I don’t think I’ve loved an album so much this year as much as I loved An Evening with Silk Sonic. Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak delivered the perfect concept album, serving as an ode to '70s disco and '80s blues. 

Beyond the perfect blend of soul, R&B, and retro disco, the album’s storytelling is immaculate. If you listen to the album in order (which you should!), it tells a vivid story of a steamy romance gradually fizzling out, getting over said romance, and then eventually, living up life to the nines once again. It’s truly an inspiring story. 

My only problem is that it’s so short, I need a weekend with Silk Sonic or something next time. - Franchesca Judine Basbas, Staff Writer

Huminga - zild

One of the most important albums of 2021 is zild’s Huminga. As his sophomore solo effort, Huminga reveals a different side of the IV Of Spades singer-bassist. He’d gone for a more raw and organic sound that takes me back to the early 2000’s banda days of the Philippines. It’s a breath of fresh air, especially at a time when we’ve been indoors for far too long. - Kara Bodegon-Hikino

grayground. - GRAY

It’s hard to believe that this is GRAY’s first-ever album. He’s been in the music scene for so long that I’d expect him to have a long line of albums behind him; but as they say, “good things take time” and grayground. is a great example of that. 

Across 11 tracks, you can hear GRAY’s diverse sonic palette with each song taking on a different sound and style. From chill R&B tracks you’d listen to in the middle of the night to party anthems, grayground. is exactly as the rapper-producer presented it: a playground of good music. - Franchesca Judine Basbas, Staff Writer

Elsewhere - Hammock

Elsewhere is the 11th album by the ambient duo Hammock. It features 12 tracks which to me, feels like a warm hug from an old friend you haven’t seen in years. It feels like the duo was putting out a call for comfort on this album, with each track calling to it—enveloping you in all of the calm of their world, Elsewhere.

Ethereal synths, strings, and guitar all come to life for 42 minutes and 59 seconds here. While ‘Dying Alone’ sounds like a terrifying track via its namesake, it sounds nothing like that. It transports you to a reality that lulls you into a state of relief and tranquillity, almost as though time is standing still. 

‘Ineffable’ and ‘Future Past’ are the final two tracks of the album, and while they don’t make for a grandiose closure, they exemplified what the entirety of Elsewhere’s ethos is to me—a slow-burning repertoire that does nothing more than just simply existing. Elsewhere thrives on that very notion—it doesn’t try to be anything more or anything less. If there was a pause button for life, Elsewhere would be the soundtrack that plays while you’re in that interlude. - Sabiq Rafid, Writer

BEST K-POP YOUTUBE AND SOUNDCLOUD RELEASES OF 2021

Sour - Olivia Rodrigo

I picked sour as my top album of the year during our mid-year roundup and my statement still stands! It is such a raw and real album, very telling of the teenage experience—where you feel every sliver of pain and anger in ten folds (because god, it’s brutal out here, hehe).

Olivia Rodrigo has been everywhere this year, quite literally taking the world by storm; but with very good reason. She has a way of articulating the confusing and often untranslatable feelings of heartbreak and teenage chaos into stories that make sense, which is comforting. It’s as if what you’re going through isn’t as abstract as you thought it was. And when you’re young, you just need someone or something to make you feel like you’re normal, and sour was exactly that. - Franchesca Judine Basbas, Staff Writer

Nature of Things - Subsonic Eye

A nation frothed in pride when the appearance of Singaporean 5-piece Subsonic Eye starred on Seattle radio station, KEXP. The radio station’s archive means the indie rockers are in good company, and with better reason. Nature of Things remains the year’s standout despite its early release—for its courageousness to explore, attention to buoyant lyricism in dreadful times, and where many leaned in with melancholia, the group saw an opening to, well, do whatever they wanted despite the dreariness. Raw but spritely, you get the sense the band are trying but not, and that makes the record all the more marvellous. - Leland Tan, Associate Editor

Black Humor - I Don’t Like Mondays. 

We interviewed I Don’t Like Mondays. around this time last year and I’ve been obsessed ever since. They make the type of music that you just want to soundtrack your entire youth to, it’s fun, lighthearted, and full of possibilities. 

In particular, Black Humor was the album I danced (mainly alone in my bedroom) to the most this year. Like any (pre-pandemic) Friday night, the album starts off at an absolute high before settling down to a happy kind of exhaustion. - Franchesca Judine Basbas, Staff Writer

We’re All Alone In This Together - Dave

Dave’s sophomore album We’re All Alone In This Together is the perfect summation of the Londoner's artistry thus far. From vocalising his thoughts on global societal and political issues, his clever word plays, and linking up with artists outside of rap—displaying his absolute range.

The album includes an array of collaborations with artists from all over the world, South London counterpart and UK mammoth Stormzy, Grammy award-winning producer James Blake, Swedish and LA-based R&B songstress Snoh Aalegra, Nigerian singer and Altè pioneer Boj and lastly but certainly not least, afrobeat stalwart Wizkid.

The themes surrounding We’re All Alone In This Together span across failing relationships as displayed on ‘Both Sides Of A Smile’, the immigrant struggle in the UK with ‘Three Rivers’, and the journey Dave went through to get where he is today on ‘Heart Attack’.

Dubbed as the voice of his generation by NME, this album solidifies that. Dave is honest, raw and poetic in every sense of the word—never afraid to speak about issues that some may deem too controversial, putting his heart on his sleeve with every bar he writes. 

In 2021, he’s won back-to-back album of the year awards at the MOBOs for his debut album Pyschodrama as well as this year’s edition with We’re All Alone In This Together; it’s evident to tell that he will always be the person doing all the things that people talk about. - Sabiq Rafid, Writer

Back Of My Mind - H.E.R

‘We Made It’ is undoubtedly one of the best opening tracks ever. With the inciting build-up of instruments, the introduction of a catchy drum beat, and H.E.R’s vocal entrance, everything is so beautifully executed—not to mention, the boastful lyrics. It sets the excitement to an all-time high. 

Throughout the rest of the album, you can hear H.E.R’s musical versatility and lyrical range. Set in a broody soundscape that blends neo-soul and R&B, Back Of My Mind tackles an array of themes, from romance to important social issues. While this comes as H.E.R first-ever album, the record showcases a sense of artistry that goes way beyond her years. - Franchesca Judine Basbas, Staff Writer

TOP SONGS, ALBUMS, MUSIC VIDEOS, AND CONCERTS OF 2021 ACCORDING TO BANDWAGON READERS 

Bushmeat - Dipygus

If you’re a fan of the lyrical primitivity that the deathgrind band Impetigo has to offer, you might enjoy Dipygus’ congenially regressive album Bushmeat. That being said, this isn’t just a replication of Horror of Zombies, the sophomore release from the primordial quartet clearly has its own flair of groovy down-tuned death metal injected into the thematic concept of jungle horror.

Put out by Expansion Abyss, Bushmeat will transport you back to the Paleolithic age where barbarism is rife—this is where the spine-chilling horror film samples from the '80s come in as they serve to add an effectively gruesome atmosphere to the entire record. In the ambient introductory track ‘Ape Sounds,’ you can quite literally hear the screams of a rampant anthropoid that has gone berserk in a jungle. This is followed almost immediately by ‘St Augustine, FL 1896’ which wastes no time in hitting the listener with a sensory overload of guttural growls and pummeling drum beats laced with infectious riffs. It is also worth mentioning that the nuanced instrumental track ‘Plasmoidal Mass (Slime Mold)’ is incredibly reminiscent of the doom and gloom that is, Autopsy’s Mental Funeral in terms of the festering riffs and slow tempos.

Clocking in at just 37 minutes, this particularly grotesque album will leave you wanting more but only, I suppose, if you’re into the macabre. - Ynez Wahab, Writer

Don’t Call Me - SHINee

To be honest, I’ve never really listened to a SHINee album in its entirety before, but something about Don’t Call Me called me (pun very much intended). 

In general, it’s been a while since I’ve heard from SHINee (with the enlistment and all) and going back into it now was a pleasant surprise. In some way, it feels like a brand new group, one that has stepped into a new musical sphere while still paying homage to their roots and who they were all those years ago. It’s pretty exciting. - Franchesca Judine Basbas, Staff Writer

Collapsed in Sunbeams - Arlo Parks 

Released via Transgressive Records, British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks’ debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams has been lauded by many music critics since it dropped earlier this year, and for very good reason. Collectively, the songs on the album are highly relatable because they represent hyper-specific 21st-century consternations that society is plagued with—these include taboo topics relating to body image, mental health, and more importantly, queer identity. Although these subject matters are not the easiest to broach, Parks seems to be gifted with a natural ability to pen stirring lyrics about the universal struggles that many are dealing with; for instance, ‘For Violet’ touches on domestic abuse and ‘Eugene’ talks about the pains of being infatuated with a straight friend.

What is most engaging about the album is the way Parks somehow manages to meld casual conversation with poetic prose—this kind of reminds me of the blank-verse style adopted by Coleridge in his conversation poems. This sort of spoken-word poetry is apparent in the opening title track ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ where Parks recites: “We’re all learning to trust our bodies/Making peace with our own distortions/You shouldn’t be afraid to cry in front of me/I promise.” This closing vignette is a poignant rumination of the album as a whole as it lets listeners know—as cliche as it sounds—that sometimes it’s okay not to be okay.

In all honesty, Parks has such a soothing, honeyed voice, that she could be singing about virtually anything, and I’d be enthralled. Listeners might also appreciate the pop culture references she has interspersed throughout the tracks; one can expect mentions of Nujabes, Robert Smith, and Sylvia Plath. - Ynez Wahab, Writer

Fireworks - Gaho

I got to speak to Gaho before Fireworks was introduced to the world and one thing that I got from him was that he was purposely technical, and you hear that in every track in the album.

With each song more dynamic than the last, Fireworks is exactly what you’d expect it to be—an explosion of vivid colours and sounds. While every song sounds so different, there’s a distinct musicality that ties them all together. If I had to pick a favourite, it’d probably be ‘Anyway’ and ‘Friend’. - Franchesca Judine Basbas, Staff Writer

Valentine - Snail Mail

A self-professed romantic at heart, Lindsey Jordan (also known by her stage name Snail Mail) chronicles love lost in her sophomore album Valentine which is truly an album for anyone who has experienced some sort of gut-wrenching heartache in their lifetime. Just as her critically-acclaimed debut record Lush was compelling for its candid lyricism and poignant melodies, her follow-up album is similar in that vein as it too, is a confessional, albeit a more circumspectly cautious one.

While Jordan continues to wear her bleeding heart on her sleeve, it’s clear that she’s been wary about not divulging too much information this time as she feels like she’s constantly being surveilled by “parasitic cameras” (as seen in title track ‘Valentine’). That said, if Lush was about pining for unrequited loves then Valentine is grittier as it fully embraces the fragility of relationships; Jordan herself acknowledges that she’s a “sucker for the pain” in one of the stand-out tracks ‘Ben Franklin.’

There’s a certain rawness to her husky vocals which personally appeals to me more than it did before because of how harrowing it sounds, and how it manages to paint a sordid portrait of the unembellished truths about unprocessed grief. That, coupled with the previously unheard of warmth from the additional loops, layered synths and orchestral strings make this an exceptional record for me. - Ynez Wahab, Writer


This is the third part of Bandwagon's Best of 2021 lists. Watch out as we unveil our top EPs, music videos, and virtual concerts from this year.