The Biggest Music Moments Of 2021

December is a time for reflection, for looking back on the last 12 months and remembering the highlights. For music fans, this means going back over the singles and albums of the last year, revisiting favorites, checking out releases we've missed, and comparing our personal round-ups of the year's best records with those of countless "top ten" lists assembled by music critics, YouTubers, and commenters.

But of course, the joys of popular music aren't derived from the records alone. Live performances, iconic appearances, and memorable music videos are just a few of the countless ways that great artists touch our lives and add texture to our everyday experiences. For many of us, certain musicians and their work are inexorably tied to moments in time, providing gateways to the past.

But what will music fans most remember about 2021? Here are the biggest music moments that well and truly define the year.

Two audiences with Adele

When Adele's new album, "30," landed in September, the typically private singer was, for a crazy few weeks, everywhere. "30," which Adele explained to Vogue was like a time-capsule that might eventually help to explain her recent divorce to her young son, Angelo, became the fastest-selling album of the year on both sides of the Atlantic (via CNN).

News stories abound of Adele's incredible clout; her ability to get Spotify to remove the shuffle function so her album would be listened to as she intended, and the story of an Australian interviewer who blew his chance to get the biggest music scoop of the moment because he admitted during the interview that he hadn't actually listened to the album (via The Guardian).

But following the return of live music, what we really wanted was, well, live music. And so, the most iconic moment came with the release of "An Audience with Adele" — or, rather, essentially two "Audiences," one show each in front of an American and British audience. The performances were, of course, breathtaking. But what really made headlines was the show-stopping moment when Adele, responding to a question from a slightly tipsy Emma Thompson in the British edition of her performance, talked about the importance of her high school English teacher, who set her on the path to writing the sort of lyrics that have come to resonate with millions of listeners (via CNN). To Adele's surprise, her teacher was in the audience, and the two enjoyed an emotional reunion, creating one of 2021's most tear-jerking moments.

Britney is finally #Free

There will be some pop fans who, one day in the future, will look back at 2021 and ask, "Where were you when you heard that Britney was #Free?" As reported by the BBC, on November 12 the "Toxic" singer finally got what she had been fighting for in a long and bitter legal dispute with her own father: the termination of a conservatorship which had taken control of her life for the last 13 years.

An agreement signed between Spears and her father, Jamie, in 2008, the conservatorship was a legal arrangement by which Spears' father was made the decision-maker in all major aspects of the singer's professional life, including her financial arrangements and career direction. But the arrangement also gave her father legal power over decisions related to her personal life. In a statement delivered in June 2021, Spears claimed that her father had controlled her access to her own children and had prevented her from remarrying; her ardent and outraged fans have worked tirelessly to give the case the oxygen needed to force Jamie Spears to step aside and relinquish the conservatorship.

Following the ruling, Spears took to her Instagram account to share her feelings, writing: "I mean after 13 years ... I think I've waited long ENOUGH!!!! I'm so happy my lawyer Mathew Rosengart came into my life when he did ... he has truly turned my life around ... I'm forever thankful for that!!!! What a sight seeing so many people celebrating my victory ... I love my fans so much ... so thank you!!!!"

The return of ABBA

"It's strange to talk ABBA in present tense," said Björn Ulvaeus (via CBS News), who, along with Benny Andersson, was the principle songwriter for the band in question. Wait – is the principal songwriter. He has a point, doesn't he?

You would be justified in thinking that, after the seismic events of the past few years, it would take something truly unexpected to catch the people of Earth off guard. But pop fans everywhere were blown away back in September when news spread that the Swedish pop sensations — who have some 400 million albums worldwide, according to CBS — were finally making their comeback.

Per The Guardian, the news came following rumblings from the ABBA camp all the way back in 2016 that a new live project was underway, which would involve digital avatars — or "Abbatars," as they have now been dubbed — and the release of a TV special involving digital versions of the band's four members. Nothing emerged until this year, however, when the band announced a string of live dates featuring their digital selves as well an album of all-new material, "Voyage," their first in 40 years.

The Beatles' Get Back documentary

The Beatles continue to attract critical interest and listener adoration more than half a century after their famously tumultuous breakup. Much of this, of course, is due to the undeniable quality of their timeless music. However, the surviving Beatles have, with the agreement of the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison, been skillful at keeping the Beatles' legacy alive: "The Beatles Anthology" project, numerous remastering projects, and "The Beatles: Rock Band" game have all succeeded in introducing their music to new generations of listeners.

And this year, the names of John, Paul, George, and Ringo were on everybody's lips again thanks to the release on Disney+ of "Get Back," an intimate portrait of the band by "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson. Produced from footage originally shot by the documentary filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg — whose own film, "Let It Be," was panned by critics on its release in 1970 and little-loved by fans — Jackson's three-part blockbuster series has been widely credited with offering a unique insight into The Beatles' working practices that would only work in the modern day of streaming, while also rewriting how the band's final months are viewed by fans, according to The Atlantic.

In an official release promoting the series, Paul McCartney came out in support of Jackson's painstaking work, stating: "I am really happy that Peter has delved into our archives to make a film that shows the truth about the Beatles recording together ... The friendship and love between us comes over and reminds me of what a crazily beautiful time we had" (via Ultimate Classic Rock).

Ye and Drake album clash

Since the very beginning, popular music and massive egos have gone hand in hand. And perhaps it's a good thing, as we saw in 2021 when one of the world's greatest creative rivalries made headline news. 

In August, hip-hop fans went wild at news that Kanye West's much-delayed album "Donda" was, after a number of teaser "listening event[s]," finally ready for a surprise release on August 29, according to The Independent. The album had previously been slated for release on September 3 (via Hot New Hip Hop) — the day on which another hip-hop heavy-hitter, Drake, was due to drop his new album, "Certified Lover Boy." Two albums released on the same day isn't exactly news, but the clash caught the public's attention thanks to the fact that Ye and Drake had a long-running feud and had been sniping at each other over social media for months: according to The Independent, Drake had accused Ye of leaking information to fellow rapper Pusha T that Drake was a father — a fact that Drake had tried to keep private. 

The stage was set for a standoff, with the surprise release of Ye's sprawling "Donda" initially grabbing headlines and the top spot on the Billboard 200, though reviews of the album were mixed (via Forbes). However, just days later, it was knocked from its placing by "Certified Lover Boy," which quickly outsold "Donda," shifting twice as many units (via Pitchfork). In November, Ye and Drake announced that they were finally squashing their beef, with Ye claiming it was "time to put it to rest," according to NME.

Taylor Swift starts rerecording

From Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol in an unsuccessful attempt to get out of a recording contract, to Paul McCartney feuding with Michael Jackson for ownership of The Beatles' own back catalog, some of the strangest stories in pop music concern artists trying to assert their creative rights over their own work. But such wranglings aren't the stuff of musical history; as we learned this year, artists still have to take extraordinary steps to wrest control of their discographies from overbearing stakeholders. In April, pop superstar Taylor Swift released "Fearless (Taylor's Version)," a complete rerecording of her hit 2008 album "Fearless" — and apparently the first of six planned revisits to her earlier work (via Pitchfork).

But as explained by the BBC, Swift wasn't just rerecording her music for the fun of it. The move was in response to the fact that the master tapes to albums had recently been bought by music mogul Scooter Braun, effectively giving Braun control over the recordings. "Artists should own their own work for so many reasons ... But the most screamingly obvious one is that the artist is the only one who really knows that body of work," wrote Swift on Instagram (via BBC).

The first rerecording was critically lauded and was followed six months later by the highly anticipated "Red (Taylor's Version)." According to the Brown Daily Herald, the updated "Red" broke streaming records, with Swift becoming the most streamed female artist on a single day in the whole of Spotify's existence.

Billie Eilish's Bond theme

Providing the theme music to the latest installment of the James Bond franchise is one of music's classiest gigs, attracting artists from various musical backgrounds. From bonafide divas such as Shirley Bassey and Sheena Easton to alt-rock darlings like Chris Cornell and Jack White, the biggest names in music are seemingly lining up to take a shot at giving an iconic Bond performance.

So it was no surprise when it was announced that the theme to the final Bond movie to feature Daniel Craig, "No Time To Die," would be written and performed by Gen-Z hitmaker Billie Eilish in collaboration with her older brother, Finneas. The movie was due for release in 2020, but as noted by The Guardian, it was subsequently shelved amid the coronavirus pandemic.

When it finally arrived in the fall of 2021, the movie was a worldwide hit, cementing a bumper year for Eilish whose second album, "Happier Than Ever," was released in July.

Global Citizen Live

Music fans around the world were craving the return of live music in 2021, but while concerts remained off the cards for many, one charity event succeeded in creating a mass audience together online in the name of achieving global recovery.

In September, Global Citizen Live, an online version of the long-running Global Citizen festival, was live-streamed from New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, and Johannesburg, per DW. The 24-hour-long charity concert was held to draw attention to the need for international collaboration to tackle global issues including climate change, famine, and COVID vaccine inequality. 

Global Citizen Live showcased some of the biggest music acts performing today, including Elton John, Billie Eilish, and BTS. In total, more than 70 artists heeded the call, with the event believed to have attracted an audience of more than a billion people virtually, while 100,000 were in attendance across seven different venues, according to Forbes.

Limp Bizkit's Lollapalooza revival

It is doubtful that many music fans had "the glorious return of Limp Bizkit" on their 2021 bingo cards, but if the events of the last few years have taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected.

And as it turned out, everything about Limp Bizkit's appearance at this year's Lollapalooza festival was unexpected, with the turn-of-the-century rap-rock veterans temporarily "breaking the internet" and trending on social media. According to Billboard, the band turned heads from the very start of their set thanks to the unusual get-up of lead singer Fred Durst, who had eschewed his ever-present red fitted cap for a grey wig and red aviators — a knowingly ironic dad-rock look that playfully drew attention to the generation gap between the aging band and the festival up-and-comers, such as Megan Thee Stallion.

But the band's appeal on the day wasn't purely thanks to a gimmick. The band's one hour set was loaded with hits from their heyday, from "Break Stuff" to "Rollin'," while the audience was wowed by the abilities of Limp Bizkit's virtuoso guitarist, Wes Borland.

And the band continued to ride the wave of adulation, dropping their sixth album, "Still Sucks," in October, their first new release in a decade (via Billboard).

The worst song of the year?

2021 was also the year that marked the return of Rebecca Black, whose off-key singing style on the single "Friday" became a schadenfreude-inducing meme way back in 2011. As described in a profile in The Atlantic, however, Black has emerged as a distinctively post-ironic performer whose new music is being actively embraced by listeners. And in July a new figure had emerged to fill her former role as the internet's queen of cringe.

Enter Sarah Brand, whose song, "Red Dress," became a viral sensation after she uploaded a self-directed music video to YouTube. Out of tune in almost every bar, the song drew playful criticism from millions of listeners within days, with one viewer commenting: "​​She's actually very talented, it takes a lot of effort to sing a whole song off-key."

But as "Red Dress" became the month's must-watch music meme, critics began to question whether Brand was quite as oblivious to how unlistenable the song was as it first appeared. Per the BBC, the theory emerged that the whole thing was a hoax, intended to elicit a viral pile-on at Brand's expense. As the source notes, Brand, originally from Los Angeles, is a student of sociology at Oxford University, leading many to believe that the song and its elaborate video may in fact have been a part of a social experiment investigating internet culture and the judgmental responses of online audiences. Brand herself later claimed that the song "did what it set out to do."

Bo Burnham: Inside

In May, musician and comedian Bo Burnham released "Inside," his first Netflix special since 2016's "Make Happy." Described by The Guardian's comedy critic Brian Logan as a "claustrophobic masterpiece," it was written, filmed, and directed by Burnham alone from the isolation of the guest house of his home in Los Angeles during the coronavirus pandemic. The special has been widely praised for reflecting the anxieties of quarantining and the ubiquity of the internet in our everyday lives.

Per The Guardian, "Inside" begins in the style of his earlier work, offering pithy observations on the awkwardness of online interactions such as FaceTiming family members, sexting, as well as parodies of common YouTube video formats, such as reaction videos. But as the show goes on, the content becomes more fragmented, reflecting the internal struggles of the quarantiner and the toll of prolonged isolation on one's mental health. It received near universal acclaim, and has been described as "rais[ing]the bar" for future comedy specials (via The Charlatan).

Montero confirms Lil Nas X as the new king of pop

Lil Nas X has been a megastar ever since making pop history in 2019 with his smash single "Old Town Road," which spent 19 weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 chart — the longest reign of any song since the charts first began, according to Fox News.

Lil Nas X has continued to enjoy success with a string of singles and an EP, though the singer was seemingly at risk of being unfairly written off by critics as the purveyor of crowd-pleasing novelty songs. But fans' expectations were raised in early September when Lil Nas X announced that his debut album, "Montero," would be arriving later that month (via Rolling Stone). With contributions from Elton John, Doja Cat, and Miley Cyrus, it promised to be one of the biggest records of the year — but would it live up to the hype?

The short answer is: yes. The long answer is: it exceeded it. According to Forbes, "Montero" enjoyed "rave reviews" from music critics, with veteran Pitchfork critic Eric Torres deeming that Lil Nas X's debut "fulfills the promise of a new kind of pop star," while The Wall Street Journal went as far to crown Lil Nas X the "New King of Pop."