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Best albums of 2021: Arlo Parks’ ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’

The album exemplifies the spectrum of emotions in a COVID-19 and grief-stricken world

The Undefeated asked our writers to pick the most important albums from an insane year. Find the rest of their selections here.

In the months leading up to my grandmother’s death in late August, I was only allowed to visit her once every other week, peeking at her frail body through a window screen just outside the rehab facility. When I was finally able to go inside and embrace her, it was after she’d already died. My family wasn’t alone, either. Plenty of people had to bury their loved ones in empty churches or forgo the comfort of repasts in the past year and a half.

Even outside of the deaths, we’ve been in a time of collective sadness for nearly two years now. Confronted with a raging virus, feelings that once might have seemed melodramatic become a sobering reminder of how quickly circumstances can change from bliss to utter chaos. Seasonal depression is worsened by never-ending isolation. The loneliness that follows a breakup is worsened by the fact that your loved ones can’t even touch you.

Arlo Parks performs at Le Trabendo on Nov. 14 in Paris.

David Wolff/Patrick/Redferns/Getty Images

In a time of collective grief and pain, singer and poet Arlo Parks offered her voice, soft and steady. The confidence displayed throughout her debut project seemed to confirm that, yes, things really suck right now. But, they’ll get better eventually, if you can hold on. Such is life.

Maybe Collapsed in Sunbeams was always going to resonate with a lot of people, especially anyone who is young, overwhelmed and looking for a sense of belonging. Her music, with its sparse productions and vivid imagery, is made for gentle interpersonal reckonings and quiet introspection. Its stories are as specific as they are universal, with each song speaking to the hope of the next moment as much as it speaks to the despair of the current one. But the 21-year-old released her debut album in January, in the middle of a pandemic. Its success and the fact that it catapulted Parks to critical acclaim this year will likely always be tied to the coronavirus and people dealing with the heightened emotions of this time.

The 12 songs came at a time when many people were grappling with an uncomfortable truth: A year after many people first heard about COVID-19, the coronavirus was still upending lives and it had become painfully obvious that a return to normalcy wasn’t in the near future. Amid this backdrop, Parks’ brand of indie pop seemed to not only speak to the uncertainty of young adulthood, but also the uncertainties of life for anyone of any age. (Perhaps, Parks would say this was always her intention. When Collapsed in Sunbeams was released, she told NPR ​​the project is “more of a conscious attempt to tell my story, and I happen to be 20 years old.”)

Parks might be new to this whole adulting thing, but she approaches it with clear-eyed wisdom that is both refreshing and sobering. She understands the importance of the little details and uses them to show both despair and optimism throughout the album. When Parks sings about Millie, a girl who tucks her pain inside because of fear of being institutionalized, she ends by telling the character she, too, has been “looking for light and finding a hole where there shouldn’t be one/I cannot communicate the depth of the feeling/Truth is, I’m still learning to be open about this/But know that I know and you’re not alone.”

On “Too Good,” she focuses on a routine morning with a lover that reveals the cracks neither partner is willing to speak about out loud. “I brought you breakfast, then you stared at your rings/The air was fragrant and thick with our silence/I held my breath as something deep inside pinched/I touched the bump on your wrist you were born with,” she sings before the song’s refrain begs a seemingly easy question: “Why’d we make the simplest things so hard?

It’s the song titled “Black Dog” that stands out on the album, though. During the song, Parks laments, “It’s so cruel/What your mind can do for no reason,” after trying to coax her friend out of bed with the promise of fruit from a corner store. She’s not the first person to compare depression to this animal, and there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about the vocals or production, which hinges on a simple chord progression on an acoustic guitar. Instead, the song stands out as one of the most poignant pandemic releases because of the agony hidden just underneath the simplicity of it all. This isn’t a song about a hard day or a traumatic experience that triggered a depressive response. It’s a song about how horrible it feels on the days when everything is mostly fine but you still can’t get out of bed.

Collapsed in Sunbeams isn’t a perfect project. Even though its stories and multiple subjects (Alice, Caroline, Charlie, Eugene, Millie, etc.) feel universal, the project drags toward the end, lingering a bit too long with too much of the same ol’, much like some of the dark days and unhealthy relationships Parks discusses throughout the project. After “Green Eyes,” the empathetic song about a failed relationship with a partner who isn’t quite ready to be themselves in a hateful world, the comforting repetition and monotonous productions begin to lose their effectiveness. Whereas the looped guitar and drum pattern throughout “Hurt” mirrors the never-ending cycle of substance use for the song’s protagonist, by “For Violet,” it begins to feel less intentional and more like Parks has leaned a bit too hard into one too many similar productions.

Still, there’s no doubt Parks will get the hang of this. At just 21, she has so much more to experience. And, to say. Even post-pandemic, her ability to zoom in on the mundane but deeply pivotal moments will likely continue to resonate. 

Atlanta-native Jewel Wicker is an award-winning journalist who covers entertainment and culture for publications such as GQ, Teen Vogue and Atlanta magazine. Her work focuses on often-overlooked Black southern experiences.