By Sanai Rashid and Sammy Bovitz
Any year, especially an unpredictable and challenging one like 2021, is full of memorable moments that deserve a soundtrack to narrate their story. So it’s no surprise that this year was jam-packed with fantastic albums that dominated streaming services and social media discussion for days, weeks, and even months on end. With all of this in mind, The Beacon Beat released a school-wide poll asking a simple question: “What album released this year defined your 2021?”
Students from all four grades poured in support for one of the ten handpicked nominees, and some even submitted their own. Although the results were quite decisive, it’s worth giving every album a chance in the spotlight, examining this unique year in music from every angle.
The ten nominees were picked from a variety of genres and artists, but all shared a unique trait: they dominated the music scene, especially among high schoolers, for a significant period of time. With this factor in mind, some nominees were fairly easy to choose. Adele’s 30 and Lorde’s Solar Power marked the long-awaited returns of massively popular artists. Silk Sonic was the rare supergroup to captivate nearly everyone, and their album scored excellent reviews everywhere, including here at the Beat. Gen-Z’s pop megastars, Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, both released innovative albums, with the latter’s debut in Sour featuring hit after hit. In rap, Kanye West, Drake, Tyler, the Creator, and J.Cole all released projects that became instant fan favorites, and each dominated in their own way. Kanye’s rollout of Donda was an unprecedented thrill ride, Drake’s Certified Lover Boy commanded Spotify on release day, and Tyler and Cole both released their most critically acclaimed albums yet.
All nine of these albums make a serious case for being year-defining. Even albums that missed the cut, such as Lil Nas X’s Montero and Doja Cat’s Planet Her, took over the cultural discussion in their own way. Yet, the student body of Beacon chose to go a different direction when choosing the album that defined their year…
Red (Taylor’s Version) by Taylor Swift was Beacon’s 2021 album of the year, and by a wide margin. 1 in 4 students proudly declared Taylor Swift’s newest re-record their year-defining album.
Swift’s second re-recording album hit shelves less than nine months after Swift’s first re-record, Fearless (Taylor’s Version). In 2019, Swift first announced her plan to re-record her first six studio albums after her former record label, Big Machine Records, sold her entire catalog to record executive Scooter Braun. “Artists should own their own work for so many reasons,” Swift recently wrote in an Instagram post. “But the most screamingly obvious one is that the artist is the only one who really knows that body of work.”
Taylor’s re-recordings made the public address how the music industry’s corporate machines often hide behind the guise of their successful artists and undervalue their worth in the process. Nine years ago, when Red was initially released, it embodied a scarlet red river of transformations for Swift. In the 16 tracks, she sheds the cocoon of adolescence and blooms into womanhood, embraces the good, bad, and ugly of heartbreak, and leaves her Pennsylvania country twang behind to adopt the life of a pop sensation.
In the re-release of Red, Swift enhances her beloved 2012 album and walks down the trail of frustration, tears, and innocence she left behind. While Swift’s newest album is a love letter to herself and the nostalgia of her younger years, it is a love letter to her fans, the millions of people worldwide who have supported Swift’s timeless evolution over the last ten years. As Olivia Ruiz wrote in “Why Red (Taylor’s Version) is Important to Fans,” “Swift has gifted fans the opportunity to revisit a chapter of her life in its rawest form, evoking the familiar sense of euphoria, devastation, and heartache fans first experienced almost a decade ago.”
Isabella Argote, a senior at Beacon, voted for Red because she recalls growing up with Swift, singing her songs throughout elementary school. She was “floored” by new tracks on the album like “Nothing New,” featuring Phoebe Bridgers, and admits it is “now one of [her] favorite songs of all time.” Junior, Sophie Green, described the bliss of “revisiting [the Red] era with a more mature and grown up perspective,” and Swift’s phenomenal ability to make the album resonate “personally in both a lyrical and emotional way.” Student Solar Orange simply said, “Taylor is the music industry.”
To find out more about the Beacon’s Album of the Year, indulge in the full Red universe here.
But Red wasn’t the only year-defining album for the student body. In second place was Kanye West’s Donda, another LP that dominated the internet for weeks on end. West is one of the most iconic hip-hop artists of the 21st century, and while his work has never been without controversy, a release of a brand-new album from the one-of-a-kind artist is always an event. Not only that, naming the album Donda after his last mother, and thus attempting to address one of the most traumatic and life-changing events of his life on an international stage, made this a truly monumental moment in West’s already emotionally loaded career.
Over the years, Kanye has been the king of the album rollout, and he somehow managed to top the previous insanity by overtaking the hip-hop world for six weeks. After being teased for years, Donda was first previewed on July 22nd at Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to an audience of millions. After practically locking himself inside the stadium for two weeks, West previewed the album again on August 5th, then moved to Soldier Field in Chicago for the third and final preview event on August 26th. These “listening parties” were truly one-of-a-kind: at the last one alone, West reconstructed his childhood home, lit himself on fire, and recreated his wedding to Kim Kardashian. Not only that, West slowly unveiled a staggering guest cast featuring the likes of Jay-Z, Playboi Carti, The Weeknd, Kid Cudi, and Travis Scott.
After all of the hype and buildup, Kanye’s 10th studio album released on August 29th to mixed reviews. Still, it was a singular project that only West could have made, and with the release of a deluxe edition featuring new contributions from Cudi, Andre 3000, and Tyler, the Creator, Donda has cemented its place as the most enigmatic mainstream album of the year. More than any other album this year, Donda has been picked apart and analyzed not because it’s perfect, but simply because it’s unique. In that way, it’s fitting that it almost took the top spot in the Beacon poll.
Tied for 3rd place were a trio of albums that did very different things for the music industry. 30 was the long-awaited return of Adele. While it looks unlikely that the album contains another “Hello” or “Rolling in the Deep”-level megahit, it was a uniquely vulnerable album from the icon. Call Me If You Get Lost was possibly the most complete rap album of the year, with Tyler, the Creator firing on all cylinders as a writer, producer, and rapper. Finally, Sour delivered several chart-topping songs, as the likes of “Driver’s License” and “Good 4 U” have already cemented themselves as generation-defining breakup anthems.
Overall, Beacon’s student body enjoyed a wide variety of albums in 2021, with each record highlighting unique emotions, gripping themes, and trailblazing experiences that students resonated with. Growing up is all about trying new things and feeling new emotions, all in the hopes of becoming a person you are comfortable with. Years from now, students will look back at one of these albums that had a profound impact on their high school self and realize how each track served as a stepping stone for the person they would soon become. In 2022, there will undoubtedly be new albums that students will listen to as they ride the subway to school in the morning, run into Vanilla Gorilla to get a muffin for breakfast and work on homework in the library. But that doesn’t mean the defining albums of this year will now be ignored, far from it. If this year in music was anything to go by, we’ll be listening to these records for a long time after the year ends.