Photography: Lauren Engel, Atypikal Creative, Jim & Idle Cook of Cookhouse Media, Mark Nesbitt, Alex Kurunis; Graphics: Matthew Cavallini

November may seem like a somewhat premature time to be announcing our albums of the year shortlist, yet in the vein of short Cambridge term times, we’re announcing our favourites a little ahead of time. This list of albums, compiled by our Varsity Music team, all seem to engage with vulnerability and honesty, offering different takes on a year that has been unpredictable and ever-changing. In their authentic depiction of relationships and the human condition, we hope some of these albums can offer you strength and comfort. With their multiple references throughout the shortlist, we also hope you appreciate Wolf Alice as much as the Varsity Music team clearly do...

Content note: Mentions of suicidal thoughts, self-harm, police brutality

Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend

(Joe Bray, Staff Writer)

Wolf Alice have previously impressed, but never stunned me. “The Last Man on Earth” was a cinematic single, but I pressed play on the album with resigned hesitation. Yet, the Macbeth lyricism in “The Beach” intrigued me, muted guitars teasing a goosebump-invoking climax. Suddenly, I felt the album could be significant. As the tracklist progressed, I was increasingly stunned. Ellie Rowsell’s sensational singing and elegant lyricism seasoned cinematically sharp yet lo-fi instrumentals. Combined with diversity of genre, from the folky “Safe From Heartbreak” to the teen-punk “Play The Greatest Hits”, it’s fascinating that all of these directions work. I would argue this album is perfect. “No Hard Feelings”, a perfectly short respite from anxiety and my most-streamed song of the year, exemplifies why. Blue Weekend has ‘bangers’ and ‘ballads’, diversity and scope, but concision at 40 minutes. No second is unnecessary or wasted.

Honourable mentions: James Blake - Friends That Break Your Heart, Nao - And Then Life Was Beautiful

Arlo Parks - Collapsed in Sunbeams

(Josh Osman, Columnist)

Arlo Parks released her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams at the beginning of 2021 in what was one of the most unpredictable, confusing times of the pandemic, let alone the last decade. In times like these, her reassuring, representative voice felt more timely and necessary than ever. With her knack for poetic storytelling in simple words, the album’s themes of intimacy, pain and trust struck even harder, but the upbeat rhythms stop the album from being too pessimistic, even in its darkest moments. Setting such a high bar with such an outstanding debut at the age of just 20, Arlo Parks displays wisdom and maturity in her words, articulating the troubles of Generation Z in a way that very few could.

Honourable mentions: Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend, St. Vincent - Daddy’s Home

Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram & Jon Randall - The Marfa Tapes

(Sianna King, Columnist)

No song in 2021 has made me sob my eyes out quite like “Ghost” from The Marfa Tapes - and no, I might not be Miranda Lambert, nor have I gone through a high-profile celebrity divorce since the last time I checked, but the heart-wrenching lyrics across this rootsy lo-fi record make me feel her every emotion right down to the core. It consists of fifteen songs that these three singer-songwriters have written together over the past five years, and was recorded spontaneously in the depths of the pandemic in the desert by the Texas-Mexico border, and it’s about as raw as you can get - the wind blows, cows moo, and the border patrol flies overhead in the background. 100 words can’t do it justice, so you’ll have to take my word for it and give it a spin: The Marfa Tapes is something special.

Honourable mentions: PJ Harding & Noah Cyrus - People Don’t Change, Brandi Carlile - In These Silent Days

Madison Beer - Life Support

(Matthew Cavallini, Music Editor)

“How do I word this? Was about to write you this letter, but it was just curses in cursive” opens “Emotional Bruises”, one of many laments that make up Madison Beer’s life-affirming Life Support. It’s a lyric that quite sublimely sums up the pain that went into making this album. The debut record from Madison Beer was ground-breaking in its exploration of mental health themes: “Effortlessly” touches upon self-harm and exhaustion in the wake of her BPD diagnosis; “Stay Numb And Carry On” alludes to unhealthy coping mechanisms; “Default” and “Homesick” address suicidal thoughts and feelings of not belonging. Her honesty makes for an incredibly comforting listen to anyone who has fought these battles too. She also artfully moves between the emotionally moving and the physically moving, with the inclusion of “Baby” (perhaps the sexiest song ever made, no exaggeration). Life Support not only highlights that Madison is one of the most technically skilled vocalists today (see “Selfish”, a song that would be a career highlight for any artist) but showcases the fact that there isn’t a feeling she can’t invoke.

Honourable mentions: GFOTY - FEMMEDORM, C. Tangana - El Madrileño

Shungudzo - I’m not a mother, but I have children

(Maddy Fisher, Music Editor)

2020 felt like a never-ending onslaught of crisis, protest, and breaking points, and there was perhaps worry that, in 2021, the public would fall back into a state of bliss ambivalence. Shungudzo, in her exploration of police brutality, fetishisation, activist burnout, and wealth inequality, tells her listeners - there is no right time to stop talking about this. Despite this being Shungudzo’s debut album, she is already established in the music industry, writing for Little Mix and Jessie Ware. This mastery over her craft is stunningly evident throughout the album, as she excels in her rock, soul, pop and spiritual offerings. She is resentful and exhausted by the violence endemic to American society, yet the overall message is paradoxically comforting: even if nothing changes before we die, it is our future children that we are fighting for. Besides, it is resistance alone that makes us free. Listen to this album now and revel in all its beauty. Then play it through the megaphone at your next rally.


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Honourable mentions: Self Esteem - Prioritise Pleasure, Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend

Listen to the highlights from these albums hand-picked by our team over on our Spotify playlist