Welcome to the Queer Your Ears best queer and trans albums 2021 list. QYE has been on hiatus for a full two years — longer than it actually ran as a column (the last one was an entire decade roundup)! That’s mostly because I got a big adult full-time job and haven’t had capacity to keep up with what’s going on in the world of music, but every once in a while I wish I could revive the dang thing. Maybe in 2022? I still get e-mails every day from music PR people hoping for a feature.
2021 was a great one for queer and trans artists. I apparently listened to a lot of pop and rock this year, which seems on-brand, though I also started getting deeper into hyperpop/ experimental music. None of those artists other than Arca made the list — either they weren’t from this year (if 100 Gecs had released an album this year, I’d be 100% defending them right on this page) or they’re so obscurely underground/conceptual that it’s impossible to determine whether they’re queer and/or trans (despite our apparent domination of those genres).
Mental health was a major theme this year lyrically, as were some of the topics that can never be approached too many times — being gay, being in love, breaking up, struggling with identity, struggling with adulthood, struggling with self-sabotage.
Important to note: Nearly everyone in the best queer and trans albums 2021 list and the honorable mentions has been featured in QYE in the past in some capacity, which makes me feel like I’m really missing some new/emerging artists since I haven’t been keeping my thumb on the pulse lately. Check out Dani Janae’s list of best songs of the year (I’ve added a bunch of them to my rotation) and please let me know who I missed in the comments!
Collapsed in Sunbeams by Arlo Parks
Arlo Parks’ smooth, crooning voice melds perfectly with her relaxed, meandering, but precise pop production to create a package that feels like the empathy around which it centers. Acoustic guitars and warm, simple percussion meld with the shimmering background synths that abound on Collapsed in Sunbeams, which primarily deals lyrically with mental illness — but from a vicarious perspective rather than the more-traditional personal one.
Various character vignettes provide intersecting narratives of loss, loneliness, and depression, but they’re always coupled with an undercurrent of love, care, affirmation, and support. On Hurt: “Charlie drank until his eyes burned/ then forgot to eat his lunch/ Pain was built into his body/ Heart so soft it hurt to beat/ Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to feel something for once?” But then the chorus is what we wish our loved one could accept: “I know you can’t let go of anything at the moment/ Just know it won’t hurt so much forever.”
On Black Dog: “I’d lick the grief right off your lips/ … sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this/ And honestly it’s terrifying/ Let’s go to the corner store and buy some fruit/ I would do anything to get you out your room/ Just take your medicine and eat some food/ … It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason.” Multiple songs repeat “You’re not alone,” and yet somehow Parks avoids this sounding like a cliché or a cloying sentimentality.
The primary feeling evoked here is empathy. If you’ve ever loved someone with mental illness, Parks knows what that’s like. And if you, like me, have experienced it, just the idea of being loved through it is incredible powerful. The difficulty of being a friend or lover to someone struggling in this way is unfortunately not frequently enough explored in pop music; Collapsed in Sunbeams offers a balm to everyone involved.
Sling by Clairo
Clairo’s debut Immunity was one of my favorite albums of 2019, and like many low-fi, bedroom, YouTube artists who get a big break, Sling takes what was great about that album and adds the sheen of much more expensive production to take it to the next level.
I miss some of the DIY vibes of her previous album, but she doesn’t go overboard here. It’s still jazzy, indie white girl soul, but the slowly plucked piano notes and meticulously arranged string sections leave plenty of space to breathe, and the songs are structurally complex without being difficult.
Clairo’s all about grounded and emotionally-charged, but often lyrically obscure, meditations. The themes of motherhood and adult responsibility — she’s now 22 — pop up frequently. “Zinnias” appears to be an exploration of that post-graduate fear of adulthood combined with a queer longing for normalcy: “Quietly, I’m tempted/ Sure sounds nice to settle down for a while/ Let the real estate show itself to me/ I could wake up with a baby in a sling/ Just a couple doors down from Abigail/ My sister, man, and her ring.”
On “Reaper,” she seems to fight with the internal pressure to be a mother, a caregiver: “It’s nice to hear your voice again/ I pushed you so far down and I let you sink through the drain/ There’s a claw on my shoulder/ And she’s saying the obvious/ ‘You know eventually you’re gonna have to be a provider, too’/ …I’m born to be somebody then somebody comes from me.”
Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast
This album’s title gives you a hint. Jubilee feels like a celebration, albeit a poppy indie rock celebration from someone who’s been making moody, brooding, dour albums for years. Grief suffused Psychopomp and Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Michelle Zauner’s previous albums — her mother died in 2015 and both were forms of processing. After two albums and a best-selling book — “Crying In H Mart” is a memoir about their relationship — she’s ready to move in another direction.
Be Sweet is the standout here; its pulsing rhythm, joyous, bouncing bassline, and punchy, upbeat synths track the thought process of a betrayed lover who still has hope of reconciliation. Whereas her previous albums dealt with death — the ultimate, hope-crushing finality — this one feels buoyant. Tactics feels sweet, with its sweeping strings. And while it’s ostensibly about putting distance between one and one’s former lover, it also remains positive: “So say what you want/ Dose up on fiction, disfigure the truth/ While I walk, life beating on.”
It’s still Japanese Breakfast, though. Not all of the songs are nearly as upbeat, lyrically or sonically. Posing In Bondage is a heartbreaking vignette with dueling metaphors for unrequited affection. Its haunting refrain: “Closeness/ Proximity/ I needed/ Bondage.” And In Hell is a brutal rumination on death; Zauner apparently wasn’t 100% done plumbing its depths: “And under the fluorescents another sterile room/ where no one ever tells you just how clinical death looks.”
in defense of my own happiness by Joy Oladokun
I don’t know if Tracy Chapman comparisons are reductive, here, but I mean it as a standing ovation-level compliment (and Oladokun herself cites Chapman as an influence). Oladokun’s folksy, pop-tinged, largely-acoustic R&B is welcoming and comforting, while simultaneously being sharp, critical, and precise. A primary theme: the process of reconciling her Black, immigrant, Christian upbringing with her queerness.
On album opener jordan: “They told me he’s a good Lord/ as they tied shackles to my feet/ They drowned me in the Jordan/ and then they walked away from me.” Later, love sets her free — and it feels purposely unclear whether it’s romantic love, or a reconciliation with the God she was taught didn’t accept her.
As someone who grew up in religion, the references she makes throughout the album are immediately apparent and add color and context to songs that, in my opinion, stand on their own whether you’re intimately familiar with the background frameworks within which they operate or not. But it definitely helps.
Lost, for example, hits different when you’ve had the heart-wrenching experience of leaving religion after decades of not only believing and practicing the faith, but identifying with it so strongly that it was the primary axis of your whole personality. When you connect with a fellow apostate and can tell that, while both of you are now free, it’s not clear whether you’re any happier: “Tell me how long has it been?/ Since we did our damage/ And we broke our plans/ And we took our chance on something different/ Maybe I’m just sensitive and you’re doing fine/ And maybe I’m just questioning the look in your eyes/ … Are you lost like I’m lost?”
The song also functions perfectly well as a meeting between ex-lovers. But isn’t that what all of us ex-religious folks are? We convinced ourselves we were deeply in love with someone who didn’t actually end up existing — which is, in many ways, a pretty universal experience. And not every song treads this territory — if you got a problem is a tender treatise on solidarity, and taking the heat explores the pressures of being a public figure. So while this album might hit different for ex-religious folks, it hits regardless.
Valentine by Snail Mail
Love spurns clichés — it’s a rollercoaster, it’s vast as the solar system, it’s all you need, it’s crushing, it’s a lie, it’s all that’s worth living for. Valentine attempts to explode hackneyed generalizations by powerfully engaging with all of the disparate ways love guides or derails our lives, to thrilling and dynamic effect. With driving electronica-induced percussion, soaring and searing guitars, and Lindsay Jordan’s viscerally piercing voice, this modern rock record eschews the clichés by being pointed, direct, honest, and up front.
Title and opening track Valentine gives you a preview of the lyrical complexity you’ll get on the rest. It starts out as though it’ll be a standard love song, until you realize its vacillatory narrator is at best delusional, and at worst dangerously unhinged: “I think I was made for you/ So why’d you wanna erase me?/ Darling valentine/ You’ll always know where to find me/ When you change your mind/ I’d hate to picture someone with you/ I lay down and start to cry/ … I adore you.” It’s also a great introduction musically, as the verses are plaintive and sullen, and then the chorus comes screaming in with heavy, but restrainedly bombastic intensity.
Sometimes it’s comparing a current partner unfairly to an ex, as on Ben Franklin: “Moved on, but nothing feels true/ Sometimes I hate her just for not being you.” Sometimes it’s feeling simultaneously OK after a breakup that had to happen, but still missing her, as on Mia: “‘Least we ended things nice/ Summer’s gotta end sometimes/ …Honestly/ Wish it’d been you the other night/ Should’ve been you, but it’s alright.” Sometimes it’s loving someone deeply who is destroying themselves, but not knowing how to help them without losing the relationship, as on Glory: “When it gets cold/ we’ll move to Malibu/ Where the drinks are hard/ You make ‘em go down smooth/ You wanna make it hurt, superstar/ When you take too much in the bathroom/ You owe me/ You own me/ I could never hurt you, my love.”
There are quieter, lovelier moments, like on Light Blue: “Nothing’s gonna stop me now/ I wanna wake up early every day/ just to be awake in the same world as you.” But primarily the driving force of this album is love’s intensity. The album is loud, brash, vigorous; it has a pounding rhythm to it, like a heart — and like most powerful things, it’s not clear if it’s going to create or destroy.
if i could make it go quiet by girl in red
The transition from the bedroom to if i could make it go quiet seemed pretty abrupt. But Marie Ulven Ringheim has always had a powerful sense of pop melody and earworm-y hooks, and a precise, devastatingly personal songwriting style, even though she was self-recording and producing in her bedroom. Blowing up online, winning multiple awards, signing with a major(?) label, and having access to top-quality equipment, collaborators, and producers — becoming so popular that “do you listen to girl in red?” was briefly TikTok shorthand for “are you a lesbian?” — resulted in a debut that keeps all of the most compelling aspects of what makes her music so uncommonly affecting while taking everything else from concept to full potential.
This album very openly deals with Ulven’s mental health struggles — sometimes overwhelmingly so. Opening track Serotonin gives you a taste right away of what’s to come: “I get intrusive thoughts/ like cutting my hands off/ Like jumping in front of a bus/ Like “How do I make this stop?”/ It feels like my therapist hates me/ Please don’t let me go crazy.” The song ends with a recording of a conversation in Norwegian between Ulven and her therapist, in which she describes a paralyzing fear that her heart will suddenly stop beating.
Elsewhere, there are super gay sad ballads, like on . (pronounced “period”): “It’s not your fault/ I could’ve done more/ Like being up front/ honest about what I want/ But it’s not like me/ to just say what I feel.” And angry ironic screeds, like on You Stupid Bitch: “You stupid bitch/ can’t you see/ the perfect one for you is me?” And angsty reflections, simultaneously about sexual frustration and on being thrust into stardom, like on hornylovesickmess: “There’s a billboard with my face/ It’s so weird how things have changed/ Think about it every day/ If I ever make it back/ will I find what we once had?/ Guess I ruined us pretty bad.”
Musically, the album consists of difficult-to-classify EDM-influenced variations on pop-rock — but the general vibe is, in my opinion, frenetic. It’s pulsing and powerful — when it slows down, it’s like those moments that your mind is able to briefly quiet down, and you can just vibe and enjoy the present, before you inevitably start overthinking again and everything starts to spin back up near-uncontrollably. Some songs, like Rue, You Stupid Bitch, and Serotonin, are electric-guitar based rockers, while Body And Mind and hornylovesickmess take a modern electronica approach with synths and a simple, driving drum beat. It sounds like a distressing, but somehow also euphoric, journey through Ulven’s mind as it struggles with existence. It’s thrilling, stressful, and eventually cathartic.
Home Video by Lucy Dacus
Lucy Dacus makes carefully-observed, literary sketches of childhood and young adulthood, with extraneous detail excised — instead focusing in on the places where the seams of being human get stretched. The songs often appear simple, but the little bits and pieces of detail expand in the mind because they’re somehow both incredibly specific and powerfully universal.
Remember when you went back to your hometown and, by chance, drove past your first love’s house, and you remembered her, and making out in her basement — but then you remember she wasn’t ready to be out, and you couldn’t deal, and you left, even though she just needed more time? And now she’s doing amazing and if you’d just had more sense of self as a youth, maybe you could have been together, but then again, you didn’t want to be kept a secret, and you can’t decide whether you made the right choice? That’s what Hot & Heavy is about. The slowly winding up intensity of that thought process is mirrored musically, too, as the song builds from nearly no accompaniment to Dacus’ voice, then an acoustic guitar starts strumming, and the electric instruments start plucking, and the drums start pulsing, and Dacus goes up into a higher register, and then the piano starts pumping, and it feels like you’re running a race, and it’s getting faster and faster as your thoughts start to spiral out of control. And all you did was drive past her old house.
On Thumbs, your best friend has to see her Dad. You don’t know all of the details, but you know that it was Very Bad for a Very Long Time and she purposely hasn’t seen him in Many Years. So she brings you along, and nothing untoward happens, but the refrain in your mind is thus: “I would kill him/ If you let me/ I would kill him/ Quick and easy.” That’s what love means to you.
Or on Brando, it’s the experience of having that friend who thinks they know you better than you know they do. And who gets really into like, old movies or something, because they want to seem special, and it turns out they have a crush on you, but it’s only because of proximity, because if they actually respected you it would be clear that you’re not into them, that way, at all? And you slowly realize over time that it’s actually suffocating being around them, so much that you wish you could just jump right out of the back of this fucking car because you are sick of being around them and why can’t they just shut up for two fucking seconds?
It’s possible that I read far too much into these little stories. But it’s also possible that you might read your own life into them, too.
Little Oblivions by Julien Baker
Get ready to get sad. Album opener Hardline gives you a taste with its opening lines: “Blackout on a weekday/ Is there something that I’m trying to avoid?/ Start asking for forgiveness in advance/ for all the future things I will destroy.” Primarily focused on self-destruction — the “little oblivions” we create to temporarily escape existential despair, whether through drugs, alcohol, sex, or whatever else, Julien Baker’s latest is heavy.
And not just lyrically. This is a proper indie rock album: guitar-heavy, loud, distorted, vigorous. Baker’s voice initially appears slight, but her wail is electrifying and emotive. This is important, because Little Oblivions is just so depressing. It’s so dour and heartbreaking and its main character — I hope they’re fictional, and that Baker’s writing about a character or heavily-fictionalized version of herself — is just, so destructive. So beaten down and depressed. And they make some terrible, terrible decisions — that, unfortunately, we can probably see ourselves in.
Sometimes we cope by putting misplaced faith in obviously bullshit remedies, as on Faith Healer: “Faith healer/ Come put your hands on me/ Snake oil dealer/ I’ll believe you if you make me feel something.” Other times it’s by lashing out at the ones we love — or at least the ones who are left and haven’t ditched us over our problematic behavior (Ringside). Sometimes it’s by making promises we know we won’t keep (Crying Wolf). Sometimes by having sex we know we shouldn’t have and won’t enjoy (Repeat). Sometimes it’s drinking, but sometimes it’s drinking specifically because then you’ll be harder to deal with, less sympathetic, less worth of the care you somehow keep receiving, as on Song in E: “I wish you’d come over/ Not to stay, just to tell me that/ I was your biggest mistake to my face/ And then leave me alone/ … I wish you’d hurt me/ It’s the mercy I can’t take.”
Little Oblivions is an ode to the sensitive dirtbags out there. The people in community who seem like chaos personified, who can’t seem to help harming everyone around them, who have gotten second and third tries and spurned all olive branches. They do have feelings, if this album is any indication, and they are sorry, sometimes, and they wish they could be different, but they just don’t know how. And don’t all of us harm each other sometimes, and deserve empathy? Does this album help you empathize? Or does it only engender pity? Or are we all, in our moments, the ones doing the fucking up?
The Turning Wheel by Spellling
The Turning Wheel sounds like witchcraft in action. It’s an atmospheric, meandering, whimsical, intricate, overall strange album. It’s not quite “experimental” pop; these are songs, and they follow their own melodic journeys. But it still feels like very little else in the pop music landscape. Lyrically, the songs are labyrinthine, literary, evil-twin versions of fairy tales backed with myriad strings, horns, chimes, and soft percussion, and are delivered by Christia Cabral’s powerful, wide-ranging, nimble voice.
In some ways, I feel like The Turning Wheel is best considered as the score to a never-released Tim Burton film. I can’t pretend I know what all the songs are about, but I can visualize them — many seem to take place in a dense forest, centuries ago. I see fairies and star-crossed lovers and monsters lurking in the shadows.
Sometimes it seems modern, like on Boys at School, which is about a teen who, introverted and frustrated with her life, over-identifies with someone she sees on TV. But sometimes it seems very Shakespearean. Revolution reads like the monologue of a secondary character in an epic drama pontificating about their existential crisis — “I’m in a permanent revolution/ What a wheeling feeling/ when I’m complete/ I think I found my way around this mortal coil” — but then again, it could be personal. I know I’ve felt that way before.
Queen of Wands is a five-minute song with twenty unique words. The Tarot reference gives it some context, and the music — driving, powerful, intense — gives it narrative. “Thank me/ You’d better thank me/ For living/ … you’re in grave danger/ Waving wands with wizards/ Are you afraid of the power?/ … Are you afraid of the pain/ or the power?” In my mind: a young woman (maybe the same one from Boys at School?) dreams to transcend her circumstances by learning magic — but hesitates once she learns the true cost of taking up what may be a Dark art. Or, I dunno. Maybe it’s just a bunch of weird bullshit. Either way it’s a breathtaking, electrifying album.
KICK ii by Arca
Arca’s music is 100% not for everyone. But if you’re into bizarre, progressive, experimental electronica soundscapes, she released four full-length albums (and an EP) in 2021! KiCk i was released last year, and KICK ii, KicK iii, kick iiii, and kiCK iiiii were all released just a few weeks ago. If the video above intrigues, rather than disgusts you, I’d recommend checking out all four — but KICK ii is by far the most approachable for anyone not already interested in this kind of thing.
I don’t know why (though I have a hunch) trans women seem to so dominate experimental electronic music, but I’m not complaining. Arca goes everywhere on these 47 tracks, exploring the boundaries of what music even is. And it’s not something new to her; she puts the “experiment” into experimental — last year, she used an AI to create 100 remixes of one of her songs.
For this four-part experiment, each album has a different theme or vibe. KicK iii is ostensibly focused on underground club EDM beats. Kick iiii is more atmospheric and vulnerable while also being powerful and triumphant, and kiCK iiiii is even further spacious, open, and disjointed. KICK ii, however, focuses on Reggeatón as its jumping off point, and is by far the most accessible of the four albums. It even has a Sia feature, on Born Yesterday.
“Most accessible” is still a comparative term — if you don’t like industrial music, aren’t here for creepy beats that sound like they’ve been constructed by malevolent robots attempting to approximate latin pop and hyper-compressed and pitch-shifted vocals that would fit nicely in your nightmares, Arca isn’t likely going to do it for you. But if you’re brave enough to wade through these often-frightening soundscapes, the experience is often gloriously transcendent. And I recommend it.
These excellent releases are either EPs or just didn’t make the top ten. They’re all worth checking out — as are all of the songs from Dani Janae’s list and the albums they come from!
This was probably my favorite release of 2021, and it’s down on the honorable mentions list only because it’s an EP and not a proper album. Oh, if only queer, WOC-led emo/pop-punk had been around when I was a teen. This transports me!
Is this music? Trans women are really breaking the boundaries with electronic music. This is some weird, but oddly compelling, shit right here.
Made up of former QYE features Jay Som and Palehound, this supergroup made an album of Beach Boys-esque sunny indie rock that’s pleasant all the way through.
CHIKA was one of the best rappers to release an album in 2020, and this EP gives me hope that she truly hasn’t quit music.
QYE alum Claud has grown a bit on this album — into their sound, into their adulthood. It’s a very pleasant, very queer pop album.
I love L Devine’s cheeky, vulnerable pop music. These EPs — do they function together as an album? Collect a bunch of old singles together with some new songs. I can’t wait for a proper full length from her.
Friend of Autostraddle Sara Renberg takes a familiar low-fi, slack-rock take on vulnerable singer-songwriter aesthetics, but the subject matter is pretty under-explored — tracking Renberg’s third coming out process, essentially, as she realizes she’s actually a butch!
Fun pop-rock here from Pale Waves, with an emphasis on the pop! I get major Paramore vibes from this album.
What would be in your top ten queer albums 2021?