As we wrap up our 2021 end of year music coverage, we want to go back and acknowledge artists both established and fresh on the scene who had tremendously big years. Below, you can see our voted on winners for best new artist and best artist of 2021! If you’ve missed any of our 2021 coverage, go back and look at our picks for the best albums, EPs, dance EPs, and covers of the year! Stay safe and see you in 2022!
Best Artist of 2021: Japanese Breakfast
What Michelle Zauner has accomplished in one year is as impressive as anything I’ve ever seen from an artist. Let’s look at just the bonafides: an album, a video game score, a book, a movie deal. Zauner isn’t just dominating one part of pop culture, she IS pop culture right now. JUBILEE landed Japanese Breakfast debut late night TV appearances, breakthrough Grammy nominations, a #1 at college radio, not to mention a music video with fucking Michael Imperioli; CRYING IN H MART debuted at #2 on The New York Times’ Hardcover Nonfiction Best Sellers List and was shouted out by Barack Obama; SABLE not only earned solid reviews, but Zauner’s music was one of the main highlights. The list goes on—when your grandmother knows who Japanese Breakfast is now, something has shifted in the culture.
And even if we were to set aside that these things syncing up in one year was entirely random—JUBILEE by most accounts was supposed to drop in mid-2020, talks of SABLE being released date back to 2019—watching Zauner pull off successful tours, book signings, and online promotion with ease is exhaustingly mind boggling. Being prolific is part and parcel to the nature of this award—look no further than past recipients, Griselda and Big Thief, musical machines in their own rights. But to be a creative who can juggle so many different areas of our pop culture, from music video direction to in-store readings, all at a high level, I think we’re seeing something happen in one calendar year that just won’t be possible again. Find me an artist that can write “Posing For Cars” and also release a full memoir and I’ll eat my hat. You want to be in the Michelle Zauner business, because friend, business is booming.
Best New Artist: Arlo Parks
Arlo Parks was only 20 when she released her excellent debut album, COLLAPSED IN SUNBEAMS, in January 2021. That 12-track effort alone was a massive accomplishment for someone who still couldn’t technically rent a car. This otherworldly amalgamation of jazz, pop, and so much more tore down cultural and geographic barriers as a thing of pure emotionality and connective potential. It’s cliched, but it spoke of an artist operating far beyond her years and even further beyond many of her peers.
All that happened next was a whirlwind for the West London native. Chief among the accomplishments, COLLAPSED won September’s coveted Hyundai Mercury Prize-exactly one month after Parks turned 21. From there, she won bigtime at the Brit Awards, appeared on several UK late-night TV shows, and played a handful of dates across the globe. All the more is that Parks is a talent who genuinely deserved this explosive level of attention. Parks is the sort of truly thoughtful, highly-poised artist whose mere work and presence has merited a spot at an increasingly crowded table. Does the fact that she’s only 21 still sting? Yeah, but it’s the kind of hurt that makes you actually hopeful in a world perpetually in the End Times.
Parks will launch her “Collapsed in Sunbeams Tour” in early 2022, serving as her first major jaunt across the U.S. (and beyond). For some folks, it’ll be an introduction to Parks, and they’ll be in for quite the surprise. But for anyone who’s spent any time with COLLAPSED, it’ll be a chance for this “rookie” to show off the grace, prowess, and majesty that’s defined her massive, wholly-young career. These shows aren’t just a display but also a victory lap for a young artist on the verge of making that final saunter from big-time musical talent to someone with genuine power and influence. Now, just imagine what Parks could accomplish by the time she’s 25. [Chris Coplan]
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