2021 has been a phenomenal year for writing. All of the music created by songwriters who spent 2020 killing time, facing down existential angst and penning tunes, filtered through this year.
The uncertain backdrop and enforced introspection endured by us all during that time did at least reap rich rewards for the writers among us. The competition was stiff then, but here’s who you voted for as the best of the year…
1. Winner, Best Songwriter Guitarist 2021: Ed Sheeran
The one-man pop chart has run away with our songwriter poll, taking over 36% of the total votes for the 2021 top spot.
This year he became the first British solo artist to achieve a total of 52 weeks at number one on the singles chart (only The Beatles and Elvis have surpassed that – and they released a fair few covers).
Sheeran’s return single Bad Habits spent 11 weeks in pole position and was only unseated by his own follow-up, Shivers. Meanwhile, fifth album = (equals) went to number one in the UK and US simultaneously and the singer-songwriter has rounded out the year with charity Christmas single, with Elton John.
2. Sam Fender
You don’t have to look far to find older musicians ranting about younger players’ lack of a political voice or appetite for change. Fender is name you can shove back in their faces. The North Shields songwriter makes being socially conscious and politically aware sound and look good. His 2021 album Seventeen Going Under examined how the headlines hit real people, in his own life and beyond, in the form of heart-aching, pulse racing, personal rock songs.
3. Julien Baker
The US songwriter’s third album Little Oblivions cemented Baker’s place as a master of introspective songwriting, analysing the minutiae of her thoughts and interactions in touching and surprising ways. It all comes against a musical backdrop that is just as intricate and affecting.
4. Ben Howard
The songwriter’s first collaboration with producer Aaron Dessner, Collections From The Whiteout, sharpened the experimental instincts found on Howard’s previous record Noonday Dream. The result was an album of richly varied writing, textural experimentation and memorable melodic elements.
5. Marie Ulven (Girl In Red)
Ulven’s work as Girl In Red marries the charm from her early DIY efforts with punchy production and an open portrayal of her chaotic inner monologue. It’s a messy yet masterful montage of what it means to be of a teenager and young adult in 2021.
6. John Smith
Smith is heavily influenced by the great British folk guitarists and songwriters. 2021’s The Fray represents a changing stance – channeling peace and tranquility against a considerably more fraught backdrop, globally and personally. It’s a collected, emotive record – an exercise in musical meditation.
7. Daniel Donato
Donato’s 2021 collection Cosmic Country & Western Songs is a deftly honed blend of country music and psychedelia. He is a master of country playing techniques and the album is littered with fiery chicken-picking and memorable leads lines, yet it never overshadows the song.
8. Lindsey Jordan (Snail Mail)
Second albums are often the sound of a songwriter disavowing their roots, Snail Mail’s is the opposite. Valentine was birthed as Jordan sheltered from the pandemic back home in her childhood bedroom. It proved a surprisingly fertile environment for an album that still evolves – it feels more mature and better paced – yet benefits from the creative freedom found in a comfortable space.
9. Morgan Wade
The country songwriter has been endorsed by Jason Isbell and Sadler Vaden. Her debut album Reckless showcases an artist well-acquainted with that unhealthy dose of real life that is deemed so essential to country music, yet it also attempts to reconcile this against a shift to a brighter future, both in and out of music.
10. Beatrice Laus (Beabadoobee)
Laus’ released her debut album as Beabadoobee, Fake It Flowers, in 2020, so fans had to content themselves with the four-track Our Extended Play EP this year. Nonetheless, Laus shows no sign of running out ideas – it's a remarkably fresh collection of airy 90s-tinted addictive guitar pop that wears its heart on its sleeve.