As Eddie Cochran once told us, life is a highway. Some will choose to stay in their lane, others will dare to swerve and pop wheelies. The latter comes with high risk, admittedly – y’know, car crashes and all that – but also the high reward of pulling off some type of action-movie miracle that would make Dom Toretto proud.
What we’re trying to say, essentially, is that going for a different style than you normally do offers a pretty extreme mix of results. Here are just ten – five good, five not so good – that saw the comfort zone abandoned in 2021.
Best: Willow Smith pivots to pop-punk
No doubt you’ve all seen that meme of the scene from Captain Phillips, where the pirate is labelled as Travis Barker and informs Tom Hanks: “You make pop-punk now.” Yes, the blink-182 drummer’s influence extended this year well beyond celebrity status – including bringing prodigious hair-whipper Willow Smith into an angsty new era.
It may seem far-fetched, but there’s precedent – never forget that Jada Pinkett Smith was one of the precious-few female faces in nu-metal. ‘Transparent Soul’ rocked harder than most would give credit for, affirming Smith’s coming-of-age and cementing her place among the 2021 pop-punk revival. Rock on.
Worst: Imagine Dragons pivot to whatever the fuck this is
With their inoffensive mix of mainstream rock, pop production and light electronica, Imagine Dragons have existed mainly in the ether of “meh” for most of their career. That all changed with ‘Cutthroat’, their heaviest and loudest song to date. Note that “best” was not included in those descriptors.
From Dan Reynolds’ shriek- singing to its cloying piano to its bee-buzzing horns, the question “who is this for?” has never been asked with such a desperate need for answers. They weren’t even hiding this song, either – it was a lead single. Forget ‘Radioactive’ – Imagine Dragons sound like they have rabies.
Best: Gretta Ray pivots to pop
In the teen rom-com, there’s always a girl that suddenly becomes a bombshell once she takes her glasses off and lets her hair down. In 2021, Gretta Ray was that very girl. She’d been a sweet-natured singer-songwriter armed with an acoustic guitar, breaking out with her 2016 opus ‘Drive’ while still in high school.
With the rollout of her debut album Begin to Look Around, however, Ray unleashed her inner diva by means of wireless mics and catsuits. She absolutely brought it in the process, delivering her best music yet and completely inhabiting this new persona. Live your best life, Gretta.
Worst: Nathan Evans pivots to EDM
Admittedly, Nathan Evans isn’t a household name. When it’s revealed that he was the man who brought “sea shanties” to TikTok this year (yeah, this year), however, you might already know where this is headed.
After the viral sensation of his rendition of ‘Wellerman’, a production duo named Billen Ted got in touch to rework the song with a dance remix featuring beatmaker 220 Kid. Because, y’know, nothing says “party anthem” like a whaling ballad. The abysmal reworking topped the UK singles chart, and we’re all just that little bit dumber for it. Who even gets royalties for this, anyway?
Best: Deafheaven pivot to shoegaze
Deafheaven were one of the 2010s’ biggest metal bands, thanks largely to their game-changing 2013 album Sunbather. While shoegaze elements had long been part of their technicolor approach to black metal, their fifth album Infinite Granite saw them fully embrace the genre to what can only be described as a mixed reaction.
Some who loved their earlier material didn’t vibe the more melodic direction, while those put off by their rougher edges found themselves with an in. For both the ambition of the record, as well as the conviction in its execution, we’re chalking this one up as a W.
Worst: Staind’s Aaron Lewis pivots to MAGA country
Remember Staind? Yeah, it’s been awhile huh? If you weren’t aware, lead singer Aaron Lewis bailed on the band to pursue a career in country music. So, what does a post-grunge-slash-nu-metal stalwart bring to the genre exactly? A “Don’t Tread on Me” throat tattoo and a proper temper tantrum of a song about how the President’s a Demmycrat.
Yes, ‘Am I the Only One’ was an unlikely top-20 Billboard hit for seven unglorious days this year, bolstered solely by iTunes sales and Fox pundits prasing Mr. Staind for keeping it real – even though the entire song is hypocritical bullshit.
Best: Miley Cyrus pivots to dream pop
Away from her own most recent material, which saw her go full-on 80s with Stevie Nicks and Billy Idol, the chameleonic Miley Cyrus kept her long-standing run of excellent covers going throughout 2021. Among these were two of the most serene indie hits of the 90s: Mazzy Star‘s ‘Fade Into You’ and the Cocteau Twins‘ ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’.
The former was tackled back in January as part of Miley’ NPR Tiny Desk Concert, while the latter was covered during a show in – where else? – Las Vegas. Her love for both songs radiated through each performance. Dreamy, indeed.
Worst: Marilyn Manson pivots to hip-hop
The Donda rollout was one of the most frustrating, confusing moments in music for 2021 – possibly of Kanye‘s entire career, and that’s saying something. A new low point was hit, however, when Marilyn Manson – the guy your conservative mum was right about the entire time – was pictured hanging out with West and the recently-cancelled DaBaby at one of the listening parties.
Manson ended up as a backing vocalist on ‘Jail Pt. 2’, which lead to a writing credit on Donda and eventually landed him a Grammy nomination. When people say accusations ruin men’s lives, show them this.
Best: Rebecca Black pivots to hyperpop
To commemorate a decade of outsider-art masterpiece ‘Friday’, Rebecca Black shared a remix of her oft-derided hit back in February. She didn’t come alone, however: none other than 100 gecs‘ Dylan Brady was behind it, and Black’s ascent into the glitched-out realm of hyperpop began.
The excellent Rebecca Black Was Here EP followed, where the grown-up 24-year-old delivered neon-tinged bangers for every day of the week. Ultimately, it makes sense – why not double down on how bizarre your music career has been by aligning with one of the most alien genres in existence? 2021 was truly back in Black.
Worst: The Offspring pivot to… orchestral punk?
The Offspring made a simpering, limp return after several years with Let the Bad Times Roll, potentially their worst album to date.
Don’t believe it? Here’s how low on ideas they were: They tacked on a single they released six years ago, they included a piano-ballad version of their hit ‘Gone Away’ and they inexplicably tackled ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ as a D-beat punk song for a laugh-free experiment in “gee aren’t we so goofy?” The band got way more attention this year for booting their drummer on the grounds of… well… you gotta keep ’em vaccinated.