Dancing Astronaut’s 2021 Artist of the Year: ILLENIUM
When it came to the question of the sole artist deserving of Dancing Astronaut‘s Artist of the Year 2021 title, we’d be lying through our teeth if we told you that ILLENIUM wasn’t the first person to come to mind.
His name was already expected to come up more than a few times in 2021, thanks in part to speculation that he was preparing to release his first album outside of the Ashes, Awake, and Ascend album trilogy in 2022. The supposition led us to place the unconfirmed project on our list of 17 of the most-anticipated albums of 2021, but in hindsight, could anyone have realistically forecast the 12-month downpour that would take place shortly thereafter? Simply put, no.
On January 1, 2021, the only items that ILLENIUM had rendered certainties were a newly inked label deal with 12Tone Music and a misting of singles that would follow. Although one could have reasonably assumed that these developments would support the dissemination of his fourth album—as we did—there wasn’t necessarily any concrete evidence from ILLENIUM himself to support that notion at the time.
The 2021 calendar that ILLENIUM—lesser known as Nicholas Miller—put together reigns as one of the single most jam-packed in recent dance music memory. And as the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” the same can certainly be said about a bid for Artist of the Year.
For the purpose of this artistic road map’s comprehensibility, we’ll have to rewind to when ILLENIUM planted the first seeds for his blockbuster year. As the 2020 summer season neared its end, ILLENIUM virtually sat down with Dancing Astronaut to detail “Nightlight” with Annika Wells. The single—the first of his 12Tone Music deal—would not only open those release doors, but also serve as his first solo appearance since his third album.
“Nightlight” ushered in a more “rocky Ascend” flair to his sound, as ILLENIUM put it, and “Nightlight” was ultimately just the tip of the musical iceberg. Two more singles would make their way down the production line in the following months, with ILLENIUM shooting off a pair of head-turning collaborations with Tom DeLonge as well as his Christmas Day stocking stuffer with Dabin and Lights. Between the momentum around that trio of tracks and their not-so-subtle grouping together on Spotify, it felt like a low-risk, high-reward call to give ILLENIUM a chair at our most-anticipated albums of 2021 table—despite no official word having been spoken. ILLENIUM was also awarded a spot on our record of the 15 most-anticipated IDs of 2022 for his then-unfinished combo with Nurko, which would evolve into “Sideways” alongside Valerie Broussard. Based on all of the evidence, it seemed as though ILLENIUM’s fourth album—if there was actually going to be one—would be his “most forward-thinking and exploratory” yet, but whether these conjectures would become realities remained one giant question mark.
One month later, the forenamed ID was unveiled in grand fashion during Nurko’s January 30 Park ‘N Rave stream. Twitter expectedly lost its collective mind the instant that Festival Season and Dancing Astronaut shared the video of the “Sideways” premiere, shooting all excitement levels off the charts for whatever ILLENIUM was scheming. And in mid-February, those album predictions rang true when ILLENIUM shared a first official album teaser on Instagram. He went on to notch “First Time” with iann dior as a fourth album preview before formally christening the LP Fallen Embers and setting a summer 2021 due date the month thereafter.
ILLENIUM’s album-related activity in 2021 is a strong component of his case for the Artist of the Year title, but what truly set him apart from the rest of the dance music pack in 2021 was what he did outside of music.
Not even two weeks after the album announcement, ILLENIUM unmasked the blueprint for Ember Shores, his first-ever destination festival. The event would notably take both him and a top-shelf lineup south of the border for four days and four nights in Cancún, Mexico. And a week after that, he’d make a trip over to Texas to shut down day two of Ubbi Dubbi, the first major festival to return in the U.S. since the onset of the pandemic.
He wasn’t even close to done, though.
One month later, ILLENIUM would go on to tease “something no one has ever done before.” The gesture to something of an unprecedented nature, soon to come, understandably confused his following, but with time came clarity around what this “something” was: TRILOGY.
TRILOGY rewrote the dance music record books. Las Vegas’ newly minted Allegiant Stadium had yet to play host to any form of live music in the year since its 2020 opening, and ILLENIUM was granted the once-in-a-life-time opportunity to break sonic ground on Sin City’s newest large-scale venue.
Journeying through three different periods of ILLENIUM’s discography, TRILOGY waved a glorious goodbye to Ashes, Awake, and Ascend before embracing an “A”-less era with Fallen Embers, set to begin later that month. TRILOGY was historic in every sense of the word, with ILLENIUM flying through four sequential sets as ILLENIALS secured every available ticket inside Allegiant Stadium to ratify the largest single-headliner dance music show ever held in the United States. And for those who weren’t fortunate enough to be in the heart of the Nevada desert on July 3, ILLENIUM came through for his fans—as he always does—with a 16-camera, 4K livestream of the momentous evening. It wasn’t just a highlight of his Artist of the Year campaign—it was a career-defining conquest pulled off in the grandest of fashions. Though no one electronically minded needed a reminder, TRILOGY re-solidified ILLENIUM as one of the genre’s most prominent names. The four-hour spectacle was a storybook ending to a cohesive album trinity and also a seamless look into the future.
Even though TRILOGY was a key rationalizing factor in our choice to identify ILLENIUM as our 2021 Artist of the Year, Fallen Embers was the knot that tied all of our justifications for his recognition as such together. Delivered just two weeks after his legendary blowout at Allegiant Stadium, Fallen Embers materialized as some of ILLENIUM’s most refined, most matured, and most praiseworthy work of his career thus far, including non-singles like “Blame Myself” with Tori Kelly, “Lay It Down” with SLANDER and Krewella, “Losing Patience” with nothing, nowhere., “In My Mind” with Excision and HALIENE, and “Crazy Times” with Said The Sky and Rock Mafia. The 14-track album was of a distinctly different tone than any of his prior LPs, what with its heavy lean into the rock-meets-pop-meets-melodic-bass collision that he’d experimented with plenty of times previously, but had yet to fully plunge into.
The first opportunity to witness Fallen Embers in action came later this summer in the heart of Chicago. ILLENIUM would ascend from a daytime slot at Lollapalooza’s Perry’s Stage in 2018 to closing duties at the Bud Light Seltzer Stage in 2021. The livestreamed day one finale was nearly 90 continuous minutes of purely unadulterated energy and euphoria that proved that ILLENIUM could hold his own on one of the planet’s biggest festival stages in a newly minted Fallen Embers world. The summer headlining run wouldn’t stop there, with ILLENIUM going on to close out both Electric Zoo and Life Is Beautiful before hosting an overdue back-to-back-to-back set alongside his best friends, Said The Sky and Dabin, at Global Dance Festival. He also reunited with Excision at The Gorge Amphitheatre for Bass Canyon, resumed his yearly three-night tradition at Red Rocks, potentially added a new annual custom into the mix through a multi-night hometown takeover at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, and quickly made the trip back to Las Vegas for a surprise ArtCar set at EDC. Amid everything else, ILLENIUM somehow still found time to undertake a Fallen Embers mini-tour. It’s worth noting that all of this comes just before ILLENIUM makes history once more in 2022, when he will be commissioned to close out Saturday night on Ultra Music Festival’s main stage. ILLENIUM will become the first solo bass music artist to do so following his set at Ultra’s return to Bayfront Park.
Did ILLENIUM’s year stop there? Of course not. We all were more than grateful to have a full-length album in our libraries this year, but ILLENIUM spent such an overwhelming abundance of time working on music during the pandemic that he felt that there wasn’t any reason to let the release storm end. Two months after Fallen Embers hit streaming platforms, ILLENIUM started to chug the ID train along yet again, premiering “Wouldn’t Change A Thing” with 30 Seconds To Mars, “Story Of My Life” with Sueco and Trippie Redd, an unreleased cut with Wooli and Grabbitz, a drum ‘n’ bass joint with William Black, and “From The Ashes” with Skylar Grey. There was so much music just sitting in the vault that a Fallen Embers deluxe edition was inevitable, and even then, a few IDs didn’t make the extended tracklist cut.
Despite a whopping 17 original productions to his credit in 2021, ILLENIUM is supposedly sitting on more unreleased music than anyone could conceive of, thanks to talk of a surprise set at Embers Shores that contained nothing but never-before-heard music.
That set would wind up as just one of ILLENIUM’s seven total Ember Shores sets, including a house set, a drum ‘n’ bass set, back-to-back showings with Nurko and Blanke, and ultimately a four-man grand finale on Ember Shores’ fourth day with Blanke, Wooli, and William Black. In a year when destination festivals were an in-demand item, Ember Shores decisively managed to stand out in a crowded room, somehow adding more cause to the argument that ILLENIUM’s stake in Artist of the Year was his and his alone.
In between all that had already happened, ILLENIUM grabbed a Grammys nod for Fallen Embers. Although a nod from the Recording Academy might not necessarily hold much weight in dance music, it does for those who have followed him since his early remix days and Ashes. In short, it’s remarkable to witness the critical recognition that ILLENIUM has not only merited but amassed at this stage in his career, and it couldn’t be more deserved.
It’s not an accident that 2021 was flooded with mention of ILLENIUM time and time again. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to its knees, it struck the music industry especially hard. Artists whose livelihoods were tied so closely to in-person shows were forced to find other means to connect with their crowds, relegated to the intermittent virtual festival or drive-in event.
Although the industry became accustomed to the unprecedented circumstances, everyone began to realize that ILLENIUM was purposefully keeping to himself during that period. You’d be hard-pressed to find dance music artists who weren’t involved in at least one virtual activity from 2020-2021, but ILLENIUM was among them. And while he played host to the infrequent Twitch production stream, there wasn’t a ton of noise coming from his end aside from his release of the Ascend tour edits in June 2020. Some could mistake this as a lack of effort or as an inability to adapt to new circumstances, but it was anything but. Between 2020 and 2021, there wasn’t a single artist who used their time away from the stage more effectively in terms of the seeds of accomplishment sown in 2020 and realized on a grand scale in 2021. With the absence of an unforgiving touring schedule, ILLENIUM put his head down and went to work so he could be ready to return at a moment’s notice, resulting in an unfathomable level of planning to pull off what he did in 2021.
Don’t get us wrong: 2021 is no one-hit-wonder run for ILLENIUM. It’s the result of his methodical, exponential growth year after year from undiscovered SoundCloud remixer to the Grammy-nominated A-lister that we know and love today. He’s battled his fair share of adversity to help fuel and inspire the art that he stands behind, with a truly inspiring story to go along with it, one filled with emotion that resonates with the millions of fans who have been able to form a genuine connection with him and his music. And that’s precisely why you can’t attend a majority of festivals in this day and age without spotting at least one, 10, hundreds, or even thousands of ILLENIUM jerseys scattered throughout the crowd.
There’s no telling what 2022 now holds for ILLENIUM—although we’re crossing our fingers for a phase two Fallen Embers album tour—and while we could start tossing out more predictions and keep this thesis-length testament to a genuinely unforgettable year going for another million words, we’ll stop here to soak in the moment and make our concluding statement: we are honored to name ILLENIUM Dancing Astronaut’s 2021 Artist of the Year.
Featured image: David H. Nguyen