Music

Why Justin Bieber’s 2021 Was Great and Justin Timberlake’s Was Awful

Jack Antonoff, J Balvin, Justin Bieber, and Jay-Z.
Which J had the best 2021? Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for the Recording Academy, Michael Loccisano/Getty Images, Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for the Met Museum/Vogue, and Rich Fury/Getty Images.

Between Justin Bieber’s multi-Grammy-nominated new album and Jack Antonoff’s myriad production credits, men with names starting with “J” dominated the music industry in 2021. Perhaps that initial seems strange to fixate on. “Surely there is no reason that having a name that starts with the letter J should portend good things, professionally or personally?” you might ask. “A letter is a letter is a letter.” And you would be right on that: The 10th letter in the alphabet is no more special than the 9th, 11th, or 24th. But no one could argue there was a surprising number of famous musicians with J names who stood out among their peers this year. I dare you to name as many male musicians whose names start with the letter, say, L, who had such a banner year in 2021. Lil Nas X, certainly. And … well, that’s for you in the comments to figure out, but we can’t think of any right now.

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“We” in this case is Allegra Frank, senior editor, and Nitish Pahwa, web editor, both music nerds with some extra time on our hands before 2022 dawns and the news cycle begins anew. Naturally, this realization led us to rank the J-men of music in terms of how good of a year they had. “Good” could mean critically acclaimed music, steady output, or well-charted hits. We also factored in increases in notoriety, notable flops—or worse, disappointing records.

Following this methodology, with a not-minimal amount of bias, we present our well-reasoned answers to the question of which male musical artist with a J name had the best 2021. Below is our very serious, not at all silly list, ranked from best to worst. .

1. Justin Bieber

Allegra Frank: I anticipate this being a controversial pick, but I believe Justin Bieber had by far the most accomplishments of any of his J-named brethren. He started strong on Jan. 1, when he released “Anyone,” an extremely good single. His album Justice arrived in March, sandwiched by two other extremely good singles: “Hold On” and my personal favorite song of the year, the megahit “Peaches”—Bieber’s seventh No. 1 single. And thanks to the success of both “Peaches” and Justice, Bieber made Billboard history as the first male musician to have a No. 1 single and a No. 1 album debut simultaneously, and Justice qualified him as the first-ever guy to have all six of his albums arrive in the top Billboard spot. Biebs also collaborated on another one of 2021’s biggest songs, “Stay” by the Kid Laroi, which was and still is everywhere this year. “Stay” not only blew up on TikTok, but it also blew up on the charts to become his 100th No. 1 hit ever. This boy is 27 years old!

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All of these numbers and records are inarguably impressive, made even more so by how solid all of these releases were. Biebs got some of the best reviews of his career with this one. (Pitchfork gave Justice a 7.2, which is pretty good, considering this is Justin Bieber we’re talking about here!) And in December, the Recording Academy officially recognized this as Bieber’s year with eight Grammy noms across all the major categories. Dang, Bieber! It’s hard to argue against all of this before we get into the more subjective artistry stuff—I’ll leave that for Nitish—but Bieber’s year-long work at proving his musical bona fides to a public that may still hold some ill will toward him really paid off.

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Nitish Pahwa: It’s wild that the Biebz made manifest a 5-year-old joke from Atlanta (Season 3 coming soon, who’s ready?) in titling his latest album; it was also weird that it had Martin Luther King Jr. speech samples in between some very good songs that are not really about advancing racial justice. In general, Bieber hasn’t always been the most … socially conscious, not that I necessarily expect that from him. I do think his heart tends to be in the right place, but I wish he’d gone about this a little differently, because overall, Justice is quite an enjoyable album.

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“Peaches” was definitely one of my favorite songs of the year too. It’s the rare big hit I didn’t tire of hearing in any context, whether at someone’s small gathering or in the grocery store or just at home. His stripped-down Tiny Desk version of the song, with Bieber himself on the keys, is beautiful. I think, in all the years of endless discourse around Justin, the fact that he’s an extremely accomplished all-around musician tends to get neglected. Dude’s been performing in front of the merciless eyes of fame from such a young age, and he’s gradually become a better and more interesting performer throughout that time. And he’s flexible enough that he can work with all sorts of genres and collaborators, from Skrillex in the past to Wizkid and Tems today. Justice, through songs like “Somebody” and “Lonely,” is an apt exhibit of how far he’s come—it’s definitely much preferable to, say, “Yummy.” I’m looking forward to what our No. 1 “J” will come up with next.

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2. John Darnielle

Nitish: First off, we would like to wish John a speedy recovery from omicron, which, as he sang in an improvised tune, he likely contracted during a series of recent Mountain Goats performances in North Carolina. We would also like to offer our appreciation to John for his frankness in speaking and singing about his condition while encouraging safety precautions and vaccination—especially considering how many other rockers have outed themselves as COVID skeptics.

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Despite that unfortunate development, it’s mostly been a great year for the GOAT Goat. Darnielle released a new album earlier this year, has yet another novel coming out the next, and had one of his bands’ greatest songs go megaviral on TikTok. Allegra, what did you make of Darnielle … this year?

Allegra: Good one, Nitish. The Mountain Goats have long deserved the kind of mainstream success that TikTok finally granted them this year; the band’s got one of the most robust musical catalogs of the century, and John Darnielle is one of the funniest people on Twitter, which is sometimes enough to make it big these days. He’s also very good in interviews, and the TikTok moment gave him chances to be very good in even more interviews.

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While “No Children” was the song that took off on social media in 2021, “This Year” is the song that undoubtedly many of us clung to this year, as we did in 2020: We’re gonna make it through this year if it kills us! And so we did, often on the backs of the Mountain Goats’ great music. It’s wild that Dark in Here, released in June, is the Mountain Goats’ 20th album, but it sounds as fresh and vital and new as ever.

3. Jay-Z

Allegra: Jay-Z, like Bieber, is not the most beloved figure by the general public—but he’s indisputably successful. Especially in 2021! First things first: He continued to be married to Beyonce and continued to be the father of her three beautiful kids, his four biggest accomplishments. But Jay-Z also had some new things to celebrate: He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, as one of the few rappers to be accepted by that voting body. All that work with Linkin Park back in the day did not go unrecognized!

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Jay also appeared on “Jail” by his old fellow Throne-Watcher, Kanye, one of the highlights of the otherwise messy Donda; his verse implies that this may be the first of more reunions with Ye to come, which has left fans crossing their fingers ever since. And Jay co-produced The Harder They Fall, a Western on Netflix with a killer majority-Black cast; it received positive reviews. Mr. Carter even contributed some new music to the movie’s soundtrack. In 2021, I had to bow down to my fellow Sagitarrius and music’s luckiest husband.

Nitish: Jay-Z … man. I have so much respect for his older work and his impact on the genre, and I’m glad he’s still being decorated for it. (Did you see the pic of him with Carole King backstage at the Rock Hall ceremony? It’s adorable.) That being said, I’ve been so tired of Jay-Z’s rich-man crusades. He went from righteously dumping on Reaganomics to shilling for Bitcoin with Jack Dorsey. His streaming service, Tidal, has been accused of not paying artists fairly, despite that being the platform’s ostensible mission. He’s long appropriated the late Jean-Michel Basquiat’s revolutionary art for his own excesses (not that he’s the only one to have done so), including in a Tiffany ad this year. He had that bizarre song last year with Pharrell, “Entrepreneur,” that Topshelf Tyson accurately described on Twitter as “The Whisper Song about LLCs.” Still, none of this is really new from Jay; he’s been critiqued for his “1% Raps” for a while now.

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It is commendable that he continues to fund cool new creative ventures, like The Harder They Fall, and listens to and promotes younger and newer artists like Polo G and Keiyaa and Burna Boy. I do think he’s right that it would be tough for many rappers to match him in a Verzuz battle. And I’m still spinning the Jay Electronica album that Mr. Carter worked on and finally released last year. So … yeah, let my man have his flowers.

4. J Balvin

Allegra: I have to start by saying that J Balvin is not without controversy. For example: He won Afro-Latino Artist of the Year at the African Entertainment Awards on Dec. 26 and insisted in an Instagram post about his win that he is not, in fact, Afro-Latino. His apparent rejection of his music’s and culture’s connection to Blackness and African roots is something that writers have noted before, and it is undoubtedly an issue when you’re a guy with as big of a platform as J Balvin has.

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And that’s the thing: He has a huge platform, and it’s only getting bigger. This year, Balvin released the album José, which made it to No. 12 on the Billboard album charts and topped the Latin Albums chart; it was nominated for a Grammy too. Amazon released a documentary about him, The Boy From Medellin, in July, and Fortnite released a set of skins inspired by him in August. You can literally play as J. Balvin in Fortnite! Can you play as any of these other guys in Fortnite? Didn’t think so. Also, he had his first kid this year. Congrats, J Balvin!

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Nitish: Seconded congrats on fatherhood and Fortnite, J.

The boom in crossover Latino pop and rap in recent years has led to so much great music and so many important genres finally getting their due stateside, and that’s worthy of celebration. Balvin has made some fascinating music and managed to rack up global hits without wavering from his dedication to singing only in Spanish. I think that’s admirable, but unfortunately, all this is indeed fraught. Balvin is not always the most thoughtful when it comes to racial issues in the U.S. or his home country of Colombia, and he, much like Rosaliá and Kali Uchis, has been questioned about his appropriation of the primarily Black Latino genre of reggaeton. My hope is that this needed conversation will help bring more nonwhite Hispanic musicians to the level of mainstream success that Balvin has had.

5. Jeff Rosenstock

Nitish: One of the few things that’s given me a bit of solace during these pandemic waves has been the new wave of ska. That’s right, folks—there’s a current era of ska beyond the third wave. And we have the very likable Jeff Rosenstock to thank for it, at least in part.

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Allegra: I never thought I would like, or even actively want to listen to, ska music, but Jeff Rosenstock has that power. I didn’t see him on tour, but tons of other people did—Rosenstock sold out most of his dates on his national tour this fall, COVID be damned, and he’s got more coming next year. Even if his new album Ska Dream was kind of a joke—it’s a reworked version of his 2020 album No Dream, but ska this time—it did give people like Nitish some hope and a chance to go see some great, fun music live again.

Nitish: If anyone reading this is new to Jeff Rosenstock’s work, you should go back through his older work before leaping into this year’s Ska Dream. The dude’s a legit marvel when it comes to instrumentation, songwriting, and roaring short but striking punk-influenced songs into a mic. His music over the years has been snarky, grim, heartfelt, angry—really, everything you need. Plus, before his solo career, he used to be in music groups named The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry! If I were Butt-Head, I’d say this guy’s cool.

6. Jones, Tom (heh)

Allegra: Yes, technically Tom Jones is a man whose name starts with T. But Nitish said Mr. Jones belonged here, and instead of fighting him, I’ll let him explain what’s new with this pussycat.

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Nitish: The reason I insisted is that the 81-year-old released a new album this year, which I think missed a lot of listeners’ radars. Late-career works are not always their creators’ best, but I gotta say, Mr. Jones really did it with his latest go-round, Surrounded by Time. It’s the fourth in a series of cover albums he’s been releasing since 2010, and here, he takes on a wide range from ’60s-era activist anthems through Michael Kiwanuka’s work. Jones’ voice may no longer resemble that spry baritone Carlton loved to dance to, but it still has heft. I by chance caught the video for the album’s lead single, “Talking Reality Television Blues,” and I was shocked by how much it absorbed me. Jones speak-growls like Tom Waits over a Radiohead-like guitar arrangement, recounting how he’s seen everything from the moon landing to Trump’s election on TV through the decades. The original version of this song, by Todd Snider, is snarky and not so intense; Jones and his producer turn it into a swirling nightmare.

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While I can’t say I’ve actively kept up with Tom Jones’ newer stuff, I also can’t say I was expecting “Talking Reality Television Blues” from the guy I mainly knew for, like, “Delilah.” But I think that just speaks to Jones’ versatility and keen understanding of disparate genres, from blue-eyed soul to country to gospel. Surrounded by Time shows the man can still pull off stuff similar to his signature upbeat hits, as evidenced by the cover of Cat Stevens’ “Popstar,” and provide a wistful look back at his life and stardom, as evidenced by the cover of “I’m Growing Old.” It also proved to me I need to dive deeper into his wide discography. Anyway, I think Jones deserves his spot here because he’s still singing vigorously five decades on from his ascent to pop icon status, he’s paying tribute to both obscure older artists and newer artists, and, most importantly, his stage name does have a “J” in it.

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Allegra: Jones is his stage name! Wow, so even Tom Jones understands the ineffable power of a “J” name. He was an OGJ.

7. J. Mascis

Nitish: If we didn’t have such a strong preceding roster, I would probably vote for J. Mascis to be closer to No. 1—but I’m biased because I’ve adored his band Dinosaur Jr. (another “J!”) for years. Granted, their album this year wasn’t among their compelling works. It had some production from Kurt Vile, whom I generally find dull, sorry not sorry. But it was pretty solid for a group that’s been around so long.

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Allegra: It’s wild that Dinosaur Jr. has been a band for longer than either of us have been alive, Nitish. Just like the Mountain Goats, Mascis and pals remain, if not prolific, consistent. Swept It Into Space is Album 12 for the band, 10 of which J. wrote himself; I can only hope to still be going that strong at age 56. As a bonus, Mascis himself got a shoutout in an episode of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, a late-breaking entry into 2021’s list of top TV shows. In a scene set in the 1990s in which a couple is about to make out to the Dinosaur Jr. classic “Feel the Pain,” they specifically pay Mascis a little props for the song.

8. Jack Antonoff

Allegra: In many ways, Antonoff didn’t have an awful year. He produced several hyped-up albums, including one of his own, for his band Bleachers. He worked on the re-recording of Taylor Swift’s album Red, including the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” that has ruled everything around us for the past two months. And he received two Grammy nominations, one for Producer of the Year and the other for Album of the Year, for Taylor Swift’s late-2020 release Evermore.

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But outside of his Taylor Swift–related triumphs, much of Antonoff’s other ballyhooed 2021 work landed with a great, big thud. Sling by Clairo, Chemtrails over the Country Club by Lana Del Rey, Solar Power by Lorde, and Daddy’s Home by St. Vincent were critical disappointments when compared with each artist’s preceding albums. The same goes for the Bleachers album, which came and went with little fanfare despite a Bruce Springsteen feature on the pastiche “Chinatown.” By the time Solar Power arrived alongside at least one high-profile interview with Antonoff gushing about their working relationship, the conversation around the producer was: Does he ever stop? And if he doesn’t, can he?

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I think Pitchfork’s Quinn Moreland, in her piece “Jack Antonoff, Polarizing Nice Guy” from July, summed up my disdain perfectly: “Given the headlines about how he does not want to merely take up space, he has traveled through pop with extreme Main Character Energy. It’s not entirely his fault, he just can’t help it.”

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Nitish: Frankly, I’ve always thought his work is pretty dull. The band Fun—remember them?—came and went. I love Sara Bareilles, but “Brave” is one of her emptiest songs. I never cared for Bleachers. I liked both Lorde’s Melodrama and St. Vincent’s Masseduction well enough, but neither was their best work (IMO), and in retrospect, those albums presaged the less-exciting stuff to come from both artists. I’ve never found anything Antonoff’s been behind to be rich and worthy of further revisiting and engagement. And I think that’s pretty apparent across the pop landscape, which he somehow continues to dominate. It’s like everyone involved here is phoning it in at this point, and that’s a shame! I like so many of the artists Jack’s worked with—Clairo, Kevin Abstract, etc.—and so little of the stuff they’ve done with Jack. It’s worth noting our pop No. 1 here, Biebz, didn’t have any Antonoff production credits. I’ve had Ant-ENOUGH of this guy.

9. Justin Timberlake

Nitish: [Marge Simpson voice] Look how they—meaning Maria Sherman, writing about Timberlake for Slate—massacred my boy. (A massacre that, honestly, was long overdue.)

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Allegra: The New York Times started it. First, there was its pair of Britney Spears documentaries, in which no small amount of time was spent reminding us of how gross Timberlake was after his break-up with the pop star. And then the New York Times came back for another hit with its look at Janet Jackson’s career post–Super Bowl moment, when Timberlake ripped off her bra on live TV. Once again: terrible look for Justin, and great reminder for the viewing public that he got away scot-free for a lot of bad behavior.

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It’s not totally his fault. It’s only recently that consumers started fighting back en masse against the misogyny ingrained in cultural industries, especially music. Timberlake was a cute white boy during a time when cute white boys could do no wrong, where performing male sexuality was very good and female sexuality very bad (but coveted nonetheless). But he has never satisfyingly reckoned with these truths. For a year where he’s mostly been home with his kids singing the songs from Trolls, presumably, he got more bad press than ever before. It’s gonna be hard for him to come back from a year like this one.

Nitish: The Netflix show Inside Job had a pretty funny gag at Timberlake’s expense about his continued riches compared with those of his former boy band compatriots. When you’ve lost Netflix …

Allegra: You’re basically over.

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