As we welcome and dance into the new year… from the comfort of our own homes of course, we can’t help but wonder what our favourite musicians are dropping for us this year!
We all enter 2021 facing many challenges, and in the scheme of things this one is pretty minor: Advance notice of album release dates is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The “surprise drop” that Beyonce pioneered in 2013 in a flurry of non-disclosure agreements is fast becoming the norm, especially since the absence of live concerts has dramatically shifted the focus to recorded music. The point we’re leading up to here is that a lot of the anticipated albums of 2021 do not have official release dates.
All of that notwithstanding, there’s a potential bounty of great music in store in the coming months, including these 20 prospective releases we feel are as close to certainties as a nebulous release slate allows. This doesn’t even include some perennial any-minute-now releases like would-be albums from Cardi B and Frank Ocean, for whom you can find three-year-old articles with headlines reading “all we know about” a new album that still hasn’t arrived. (Cardi’s may be a safer bet just because she reportedly didn’t push “WAP,” her smash collab with Megan Thee Stallion, for the Grammys because she wanted to push that single and a forthcoming album in the same year… which maybe makes a full record likely by this September’s next Grammy deadline.)
Could we get another Beyonce album? If we’re going to, of course, you’re not going to read about it here first. Nor do we feel completely confident in speculating that Taylor Swift will definitely start releasing her re-recordings of her Big Machine catalog product this year, although it’ll sure make 2021 more interesting if she does. For now, anyway, we can focus on these 20 nearly solid reasons to live through the next 12 months.
Everyone expected a sequel to “25” before now, as the possibilities for six successive numerical titles came and went. But the singer has packed a lot of life experience into what may or may not be called “32,” including a marriage, birth and divorce, and has also made it fairly clear that 2021 will be the year to finally share her fourth album with us. That recent “SNL” hosting gig was a veritable John-the-Baptist declaration that we can expect the full coming of Adele in 2021, as well — and her audience, like Taylor Swift’s, will be there to prove that physical albums can still matter in a streaming-tracks age. Besides being on tenterhooks about how confessionally she’ll address her recent life circumstances in song, there’s also a little bit of suspense about what the album title will be — because if she waits until a few months after her May birthday, she could get clever and and call it “33 1/3.”
It’s been nearly three years since Kendrick Lamar released new music (as the executive producer and lead artist on the companion album to Marvel’s “Black Panther”) and nearly four since he last released a proper solo album (2017’s “DAMN”). For most artists of Kendrick’s age and prominence, this would be a lifetime; for K-Dot and his longtime label TDE, however, no-wine-before-its-time has always been the chief operating principle. That hasn’t stopped rumors of an imminent album release from spreading (including a now-months-old report that it would be a rock-oriented outing), with Lamar’s recent guest verse on Busta Rhymes’ “Look Over Your Shoulder” and the scheduling of several since-postponed festival dates giving fans plenty of tea leaves to read.
How long has she been teasing us with a new album? Remember this Instagram message?: “Update: me listening to R9 by myself and refusing to release it.” That was in December… of 2019, so, yeah: a while. It’s not like she has any need to issue new product: As you may have noticed, she has a few other sources of income. But Jan. 28 will mark the fifth anniversary of her previous album, “Anti.” Anticipation for a followup has grown, not dissipated, as she’s been in her long musical lockdown, ensuring that a new album will be a major event, on a level far past what any of her previous launches were.
Drake: “Certified Lover Boy” (January TBD)
Drake hasn’t dropped an official new album since 2018’s mammoth “Scorpion,” but it’s not exactly like he’s been quiet – last year saw the release of the mixtape “The Dark Lane Demo Tapes” which, like 2019’s compilation “Care Package,” breached the upper reaches of the album charts. Nonetheless, the long wind-up to this month’s “Certified Lover Boy” (whose teaser single dropped way back in August) surely has label execs salivating; there aren’t too many safe bets left in the record business, but a new Drake album is certainly one.
Ed Sheeran: “Minus” (TBD)
Lana Del Rey: “Chemtrails Over the Country Club” (TBD)
It’s sometimes hard to figure when Lana Del Rey’s followup to “Norman [F—ing Rockwell]” is coming out, partly because tentative release frames have come and gone, and partly because there might have been some confusion with her collection of poetry, the audiobook for which did include some musical elements. Del Rey released “Let Me Love You Like a Woman” as the first single from the project in mid-October, and said then on Instagram that the album was finished and that “it’s folky, it’s beautiful, it’s super different from ‘Norman’.” There was a cover story in which producer Jack Antonoff talked with her for Interview magazine in the fall that made fans feel the project might be imminent. But in November, she said it was being pushed back because of a “16-week delay on the vinyl process… So in the meantime, I’m going to give you a digital record of American standards and classics for Christmas, because I can’t get the record plants to open until March 5th.” There were still so many questions… like, does the March 5 pressing plant date mean it still won’t be coming out for weeks or months after that? And what did happen to that American standards stop-gap project, which did not come out for the holidays at all? Here’s to those chemtrails not evaporating as we wait for them.
Billie Eilish (TBD)
One more reason to hope for herd immunity as the result of vaccines: the promise of a second full-length Billie Eilish album. “Billie and I are full steam ahead on her next record,” her brother and collaborator Finneas told the Australian Herald-Sun in September, noting that he was also at work on his own full-length debut. He offered plenty of clues about timing. “Billie’s album, and my album, they won’t be a bummer COVID record. I have a desperate desire not to release them during COVID-19. It’s the vaccine record! I want it to be the album everyone’s out dancing in the streets to.” That sounds like a second-half-of-2021 record to us, if Dr. Fauci and friends aren’t going to overpromise and underdeliver. The biggest question may be whether Eilish gets hers out before or after the Grammy eligibility deadline at the end of September, since all attention will be on whether she’s due for another sweep. But you can’t accuse either O’Connell sibling of holding out on us; with all the one-off singles that came out this last year (including the “No Time to Die” theme), they’re well in touch with the modern paradigm that mandates a steady drip of new material.
Eric Church (TBD)
Eric Church has behaved more like a pop or hip-hop artist than a country artist lately, when it comes to giving his fans a steady stream of singles in lieu of an album all at once. The album they’ll all eventually be collected on is coming, and has been in the can for a while; Church talked about it at length, describing it as completed, when he did a Q&A at Country Radio Seminar last February. In the meantime, he’s given fans “Doing Life With Me” and “Through My Ray-Bans” just in the last month, preceded by “Hell of a View,” “Crazy Land,” “Bad Mother Trucker” and “Stick That in Your Country Song.” Will there be anything left unheard by the time the country superstar does push the full-length out? Given how prolific he is, we can count on his not having let every cat out of the bag.
Travis Scott: “Utopia” (TBD)
Travis Scott was already one of the biggest stars in hip-hop before releasing 2018’s “Astroworld,” but that album’s blockbuster success surely erased all room for doubt. Since his official arrival in music’s highest echelons, Scott has since become one of his generation’s defining male tastemakers in fashion (just try getting your hands on one of his Nike collaborations), and the two solo singles he’s released since (2019’s “Highest in the Room” and 2020’s “Franchise”) both shot to the top of the charts. Needless to say, expectations are sky high for his fourth album, the as-yet-undated “Utopia.”
Brandi Carlile (TBD)
When she was doing one of her “campfire quarantine” livestreams for fans in October, Brandi Carlile revealed that she and Phil and Tim Hanseroth were about to travel to Nashville to record a new album, and even debuted a stunning new composition that was about to be put on tape. It will be her first album since her now three-year-old “By the Way, I Forgive You” seriously put her on the mainstream map — in an even bigger way than “The Story” mapped out her future back in the mid-2000s — with a slew of Grammy nominations and wins in 2019. (In the interim she released a debut album from her supergroup, the Highwomen.) Although Carlile wants to get back to self-production someday, she told Variety in a December interview about producing the Secret Sisters that she made a “commitment to work with Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings twice … I’m mentally and emotionally committed to two album cycles with that combination of producers because they had a bag of tricks that I was very interested in learning what was inside of. And I learned so much on ‘By the Way, I Forgive You.’” A release could come this summer or fall — but first, Carlile has some promotion to do in a different medium, as her memoir “Broken Horses” comes out April 6.
Saweetie: “Pretty B*tch Music” (April)
St. Vincent (TBD)
“The rumors are true. New record ‘locked and loaded’ for 2021,” Annie Clark tweeted in mid-December. This echoed her words to Variety back in September, when she told us, “I’ve got a loaded magazine clip, waiting.” What can all these ammo-centric references mean? She just did a Mojo interview in which she described the forthcoming official follow-up to 2017’s “Masseduction” as a “tectonic shift… I felt I had gone as far as I could possibly go with angularity. I was interested in going back to the music I’ve listened to more than any other — Stevie Wonder records from the early ’70s, Sly and the Family Stone. I studied at the feet of those masters.” In other words, if you enjoyed her performance of “Controversy” on the Grammys’ salute to Prince last spring, there may be more funk where that came from. (Most likely the mass public will finally get a look at her film, “Nowhere Inn,” too, which has yet to play outside of film festivals since premiering at Sundance last January.)
Kacey Musgraves (TBD)
“I know damn well you have some bops just chillin in your custody,” a fan tweeted last fall, and Musgraves quickly responded: “I do.” Reason enough to think that the country-pop sensation will publicly bop out before 2021 is up? Most likely, given that we’re coming up in March on the third anniversary of the acclaimed collection that won her a Grammy for album of the year, “Golden Hour.” When Variety had her on the cover nearly two years ago, she said she’d already gotten a start on fresh material that she “could see kind of having a nod to a Bill Withers kind of a thing.” But it’s possible that the tenor of the new songs could have changed since then, given that “Golden Hour” was about the bliss of romance and she’s subsequently experienced a divorce that she admitted make for an even less golden 2020 than many of us experienced. Whatever tone it takes, we’ll be very glad to have a sequel after three years… in other words, we’re counting on it not taking the 14 that the last country artist to win album of the year, the Dixie Chicks, took to follow theirs.
Julien Baker “Little Oblivions” (Feb. 26)
Over the course of two solo albums, this Memphis native’s raw and unvarnished songs and singing have made her one of the most promising new artists to arise in the indie realm over the past five years, a status cemented by her central role in forming the “supergroup” Boygenius with friends, tourmates and fellow fans Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. But her third full-length, “Little Oblivions,” looks likely to vault her into a whole new league, and pretty much guarantees she’ll be sick of the word “maturity” a week after it comes out. While the basics of her autobiographical and cathartic songwriting style remain the same, the arrangements are far more fleshed out with multiple instruments, nearly all of which are played by Baker herself. Without pushing an obvious comparison too far, what Bridgers’ “Punisher” was to 2020, “Little Oblivions” is very likely to be to 2021.
The concept of the album has never seemed to mean much to H.E.R. — after she arrived, seemingly fully formed, with the string of EPs that led to her winning the 2019 Best R&B Album Grammy, she said as part of her acceptance speech, “It’s not even an album! It’s an EP!” As a truly 21 st century artist, she just rolls out music when she wants: Last year saw her dropping eight different songs under her own name — including the sadly topical, Grammy nominated “I Can’t Breathe” — making several livestream appearances (including a stellar performance on the BET Awards), lighting up the Grammy Tribute to Prince with two killer covers, and being the featured artist on a pile of songs, including one by Jazmine Sullivan that just dropped on Wednesday. While details are vague about her forthcoming third full-length, a rep confirmed it’s on the calendar for this year, and judging by the way she’s treated albums in the past (basically as a basket for the songs she’s dropped over the preceding months), chances are we’ve already heard a lot of it over the past year.
Maren Morris (TBD)
Many artists in 2020 went through multiple tour postponements before realizing that what they really needed to do was cancel, concentrate on a new album, and be ready to tour that. This is the case with Maren Morris, who finally called off her half-completed last tour altogether in mid-December, telling fans: “There is so much hope with this vaccine being distributed in 2021, but we are still unsure of when we will be able to do the tour next year. With the prospect of, yet again, rescheduling half of the dates already becoming a reality, I have decided to cancel the RSVP Tour… I am in the midst of working on my third record, so I hope we can all come together and enjoy live shows safely again soon.” Morris was recently named Variety‘s crossover artist of the year for her phenomenal cross-format success with “The Bones,” whose producer, Greg Kurstin, is expected to be back in the fold for at least part of the new record. She already enlisted Kurstin for a recent one-off single, “Better Than We Found It,” that was her statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. In the first week of January, she tweeted, “Songs are sounding bitchy… HERO is shaking,” she added, referring to her star-making debut.
Arlo Parks: “Collapsed in Sunbeams” (Jan. 31)
If we had to pick a newcomer-most-likely-to for 2021, it could well be 20-year-old London native Arlo Parks: She’s already had major cosigns from Billie Eilish, Florence Welch, Phoebe Bridgers, and (ahem) Michelle Obama, and her album isn’t even out until the end of the month. She sings in a plainspoken, very British style that’s reminiscent of another big fan — Lily Allen — but her songs, which have rolled out over the past couple of years with strong support from the BBC, have an impact that seems simple but is far from it. “My album is a series of vignettes and intimate portraits surrounding my adolescence and the people that shaped it,” she says in the album’s bio. “I want it to feel both universal and hyper specific.”
Sia: “Music” (Feb. 12)
In an unfortunate turn of events, veteran hitmaker Sia’s directorial debut, the autism-themed film “Music,” was saddled with controversy months before its release: While the singer told Variety that the film and its accompanying 10 songs are “trying to show love for all of the caregivers, and for all of the people on the autism spectrum,” on the day that the trailer was released in November, she ended up in a nasty Twitter feud with people who felt the film was insensitive for a variety of reasons. Sidestepping that situation, we are eagerly looking forward to Sia’s first proper solo album in four years — although, as one of the most successful and prolific hitmakers in recent years, in that time she’s released a Christmas album, another as part of the LSD supergroup with Diplo and Labrinth, and several stray tracks and collaborations along the way.
It’s been nearly four years since SZA established herself as one of the most vibrant new voices in R&B with her Grammy-nominated debut album “Ctrl.” And after a public beef with her label/ management company TDE, which she claimed is holding back new material, it looks like the rollout may have finally begun: She dropped a hot new song called “Hit Different” back in September and another called “Good Days” on Christmas Day. SZA has had several big looks in the years since “Ctrl” — the “Black Panther” hit with Kendrick Lamar, “Stars Are Stars,” along with high-profile features on songs by the Weeknd, Megan Thee Stallion, Post Malone and Justin Timberlake — and she’s said in interviews that the latter two, along with Brockhampton and Jack Antonoff, will be featured on her new LP, but in the absence of an official update, all we can do is hope for a bunch of hot new tracks soon.
Lil Nas X (TBD)
Wait… it’s Lil Nas X’s debut album we’re awaiting? That’s right — he may have been nominated for a Grammy for album of the year at this time last year, but that was for “7,” a seven-song collection that was technically considered an EP but qualified as full-length by Grammy standards. “Album’s almost finished,” the rapper tweeted back in July. Two months later, with trademark irreverence, he added, ““[G]onna start back releasing music soon the [O]ld [T]own [R]oad money running out.” He hasn’t been out of the limelight in the meantime; Nas released the (non-Christmas) track “Holiday” and a children’s book (“C is for Country”) and did a virtual performance on the online videogame platform Roblox before 2020 wrapped up. But a proper “debut” still remains at the top of his to-do list.
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