Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2021

A year ago, I wrote about how 2020 forced me to lean on music in a way that I hadn’t since my tumultuous coming-of-age years. All the fear and heartbreak and uncertainty of last year caused me to turn to songs and albums for solace and comfort like I was a teenager again, looking for answers in his headphones. In the midst of so many dark days, music felt like one of the few things that kept me sane and kept me hopeful.

2021 was different. Where almost every day of 2020 – at least, every day after about March 13 – felt like it brought some scrap of very bad news – this year was more about the ups and downs. The music I listened to and fell in love with reflects that roller coaster. In the albums and songs discussed below, there are dizzying, euphoric highs and deep, dejected lows. Some days, I could listen to a song in the car with the windows down and feel like life was normal again. Some days, life was normal again. From crossing the finish line at the end of my first half marathon to watching one of my best friends from college tie the knot, 2021 reminded me again and again how sweet the world can taste on the good days. But there were the heartbreaking days, too: being there for my wife and her family as we said goodbye to both of her grandparents, less than six months apart; watching COVID come back with a vengeance; seeing my small town land in the national news for one of the most appalling reasons imaginable.

And so, again, music proved to be something I needed desperately in 2021. After experiencing a waning level of engagement and excitement over new albums in 2018 and 2019, I now feel as ecstatic about music discovery as I ever have. I spent this year pushing beyond my comfort zone, both in terms of the new albums I was finding my way toward and the many older records I listened to for the first time in the past 365 days. The result is probably the most surprised I’ve ever been at the year-end list I made. That’s not to say there aren’t old favorites of mine represented here – including at the very top of the list. But there are also artists who I learned about for the first time, or veteran bands who I’d largely written off. There are pop superstars and under-the-radar up-and-comers. Maybe most notably, there’s a contingent of young women who are reigniting rock music within the pop mainstream in a way that I find extremely exciting.

You never know which music years or end-of-the-year lists or individual albums are going to end up “standing the test of time.” Who knows if these records will still mean much to me in a year, or five years, or come 2029 when it’s time to compile another end-of-the-decade list. All I can do for now is look back at the last 12 months and survey the music that defined the moments that filled them. To the best of my ability, these are the albums that tell my 2021 story.

1. Noah Gundersen A Pillar of Salt

Nostalgia is a double-edged sword.

There’s something about looking back on fond memories that can activate very unique pleasure centers in your brain. Especially in difficult times, it is often immensely comforting to reflect on moments in your life that felt happier, or safer, or more comfortable. But the version of the past that we sell to ourselves as nostalgia is also often a rose-colored view. It sands off the edges, elides the complexities, color-boosts the good things while fading the not-so-good things into the background. A Pillar of Salt, Noah Gundersen’s staggering fifth LP, is at its heart an album about nostalgia. More specifically, it’s an album about nostalgia as experienced from the dark heart of a pandemic. Noah holed up and made this album last year as the world seemed to be crashing down around him, and it shows. Like so many of us, he was finding solace in the past: in memories of simpler times and the simpler things they held, like performances on stages in sold-out clubs, or drinks shared with friends in bars, or idyllic childhood summers, or tales of first loves. But Noah’s songs, as always, are rich and nuanced where many other singer-songwriters would lean on sentiment. They delve into those tales of young love and find that they were far from perfect (“Atlantis”), or put Noah on trial as he has a go at himself and his tendency to run when things get good (“Exit Signs”). Repeatedly, Noah seems to ask: “What if the things I’m nostalgic for are gone because of me?” It’s a question a lot of us could do to explore, as we survey our pasts and reflect on the friends that aren’t in our lives anymore, or the relationships that didn’t work out, or the roads we could have taken but were too scared to. Being nostalgic for those things – remembering when times were good, when friends were close enough to call, when youthful innocence was ours – is comforting, but it can also be torturous if you spend too much time analyzing your own role in the things you’ve lost. And so A Pillar of Salt ultimately ends up revealing nostalgia for what it is: A daydream quest for things that can’t be reclaimed, from neighborhoods lost to gentrification (“Sleepless in Seattle”) to the joys of youth we weren’t wise enough to cherish while they were happening (“Bright Lost Things”).

No other album has captured the pandemic experience so wrenchingly, and few albums have done a better job at encapsulating the feeling of being a thirtysomething and realizing that, maybe, you’re just not that young anymore. As a result, A Pillar of Salt might just be the greatest album Noah Gundersen has made yet; it’s most certainly the greatest new album I heard in 2021.

2. Kississippi Mood Ring

The best pop album of the year was this underheard and under-discussed little classic from Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Zoe Reynolds. On her first full-length under the Kississippi name, 2018’s Sunset Blush, Reynolds made garage-y indie pop with a lot of personality but not much polish. On Mood Ring, she levels up so substantially that it’s almost hard to believe that you’re listening to the same artist – let alone the same artist just three years later. The songs on Mood Ring sparkle with propulsive hooks and pristine production. They sound positively massive, mixing the euphoric highs of an eighties teen movie (“We’re So In Tune,” the splendid opener) with the crushing, dejected lows of sad emo-pop songs from the early 2000s (“Big Dipper,” with a chorus so aching it will make your heart hurt). One of my favorite weekends of the year was the one where this album dropped into my lap, an unexpected gift from an artist I’d never listened to before that blew my socks off and left me wanting to listen to little else. That weekend coincided with my college roommate’s pandemic-delayed wedding, which happened to fall right as fears of the Delta variant were starting to shut everything down again. Those days felt like the last of the mini “life is back to normal” vacation that the COVID vaccine afforded us, and I made sure they counted, in a frenzy of drinks, dancing, reminiscing with old friends, and screaming along to songs we all love. On the way home, feeling hungover and exhausted, I listened to this album on repeat in the car, letting its big melodies and quirky lyrics fill every corner of my mind so I didn’t have to think about what was likely coming next. The album feels bittersweet to me now as a result: A beautiful little reminder of how sweet life tasted this year when it seemed like we might have freed ourselves from the wreckage. It turned out that escaping was harder than we thought, but I’m glad to have this album – and those memories of my buddy’s happiest day – to keep me running toward the next break in the clouds.

3. The Killers Pressure Machine

Crazy as it might seem, The Killers are now 17 years on from Hot Fuss. And as great as that album was, I don’t think most people would have bet back in 2004 that this particular band would survive as long as they have. The resources The Killers showed off in rich supply on their debut – a metric ton of charisma, energy, attitude, and hedonism – never seemed super renewable. Improbably, though, The Killers evolved rapidly beyond their initial form, trading the both-ends-burned candle of Hot Fuss for the more durable roots rock of Sam’s Town. All these years later, they’re still trucking. Most improbably of all, they might just now be hitting their peak. At the end of last year, I mused about Imploding the Mirage, the band’s big, grandiose comeback album, being perhaps their best top-to-bottom work yet. That album felt like it unlocked new possibilities while simultaneously playing almost all the tricks that had become The Killers’ trademarks. Pressure Machine is different. While it’s still identifiably and comfortably a Killers record, it’s also the musical equivalent of an actor playing against type. There are no obvious singles. The anthems, while present, are fewer and farther between, and are more contemplative or urgent when they come. Much of the record is musically restrained, relying more on lyrics than hooks or musical bombast. And the stories the album tells feel like they’re ripped from real life, compared to past Killers albums where the storytelling felt more like the stuff of folk tales. Sam’s Town is great, in part, for how it takes Brandon Flowers’ childhood and makes it sound almost mythological. But there’s nothing mythic about Pressure Machine: just a small, dusty town, a few weatherworn buildings, and the weary people who call that world home. Drug addiction, infidelity, closeted homosexuality, local kids dying in tragic train accidents, murder: these are the tales that fill in the frame of Pressure Machine, a dark-as-night record that’s perhaps more worthy of a Nebraska comparison than any mainstream rock record made in the decades since. Critics didn’t give the album its due, come year-end time, but I have a feeling the years will vindicate this one as the clear classic it is.

4. Mat KearneyJanuary Flower

Mat Kearney in pure pop mode has never been my speed. When Kearney arrived on the scene in 2006 with Nothing Left to Lose, he was refreshing in part because he didn’t stick to any one sonic niche. There were pop elements to his sound, but he also incorporated bits of folk, arena rock, and even hip-hop into his exploratory songs. Over time, though, Kearney seemed to gravitate more and more toward mainstream-leaning pop – culminating, in 2018, with an album called CRAZYTALK that I found to be largely empty and soulless. Coming into the release cycle for January Flower, I’ll admit that I’d written Kearney off. But when the singles from this album started trickling out into the world this spring, they won me back. On songs like “Powerless” and “Anywhere with You,” Kearney was keeping his pop melodies but imbuing them with some of the relaxed soulfulness that made those early albums feel so full of life. And on “Pontiac,” one of my very favorite songs of the year, he sang about growing up through a lens of backseats and backroads that felt extremely close to my personal experience coming of age in my hometown. “Take me back to the time when getting old was turning 25,” Kearney sings, telling a tale of burned CDs and windows-down drives and overprotective parents and the freedom that your first car affords you. The song – and eventually, the whole album – whisked me back in time to my own youthful summers, when I would listen to Kearney’s songs on my car stereo as I cruised the streets of my town with my friends. Coming into a summer that, at the time, felt like it would be some riotous, triumphant return to “normal,” that flashback to my happiest days felt incredibly apt. It was a moment in the year when all I wanted to hear was happy, upbeat, summertime music. My reasoning was simple: After what we’d just gone through, I was ready to leave sad songs on the shelf for a little bit. January Flower served as a perfect soundtrack to that fleeting feeling of summertime glory returned, and while the feeling couldn’t last – just like the youthful oasis described in these songs – listening to the album still puts some much-needed lightness in my heart.

5. Chloe MoriondoBlood Bunny

There was almost a version of this list that didn’t include Blood Bunny at all. Chloe Moriondo, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter from my own state, didn’t even land on my radar until halfway through December. But one of the best things about holding off on your albums-of-the-year list until January is that it affords you entire weeks toward the end of the year when the album release calendar dwindles and you can catch up on everything you missed throughout the preceding 11-plus months. Blood Bunny, a New York Times Critic’s Pick from May, was the best album to land on my radar during that catch-up period, and it quickly became one of my most played albums of the year, period. Sonically, Moriondo is a clear descendent of early-2000s pop-punk stars like Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson, but she pairs those suddenly-in-vogue-again reference points with big, bruising emo crescendos (a la A Mark, A Mission-era Dashboard) and with a quirkily morbid lyrical style that strikes a little closer to, say, Justin Pierre of Motion City Soundtrack. The resulting album seesaws between lovely, emotionally candid songs about relationships breaking or broken (“Manta Rays,” “Vapor,” “What If This Doesn’t End Well”) and darkly comedic bits of satire (see “I Eat Boys,” where she skewers the male gaze by threatening to lock sexual harassers in her basement and literally eat them for breakfast). That balance, between laugh-out-loud humor and angsty, heart-on-the-sleeve emotion, makes for the perfect cocktail, capturing that period of your life when you’re young and it kind of feels like you’re living in a teen soap opera and a sitcom at the same time. It doesn’t hurt that Moriondo’s grasp of massive choruses is genuinely preternatural (I’m particularly taken with the hooks on “GIRL ON TV,” “Take Your Time,” and “Bodybag,” but they’re all knockouts) or that the production hearkens so authentically back to the music I grew up with. A lot of artists, including the year’s breakout pop sensation, were drawing from that particular well of turn-of-the-century pop-punk and emo this year, but I don’t think anyone did it better than Moriondo.

6. The MaineXOXO: From Love & Anxiety In Real Time

The Maine made their best album – and one of the best rock albums of the past 10 years – by delving into a moody, melancholy swell of nostalgia on 2017’s masterful Lovely Little Lonely. The follow-up, 2019’s You Are OK, ratcheted up the ambition, with big, bold, genre-blending swings and often surprising production choices – but lost a bit of the melodic splendor of The Maine’s best work along the way. The decline in melodic momentum was somewhat surprising, given that The Maine came from a musical moment – the late 2000s neon pop-punk fad – that emphasized hooks above all else. On the obnoxiously titled XOXO: From Love & Anxiety In Real Time, though, The Maine pair their neon-era penchant for big, punchy, sing-along melodies with the emotional texture of their later work. The result is their second masterpiece, an album packed from top to bottom with should-have-been-hit singles (see “Sticky,” the unabashed summer jam that opens the set, or “Dirty, Pretty, Beautiful,” an almost deliriously catchy pop song), big rock songs that hearken back to an era when rock music could actually land on the radio (surefire live show staples like “Lips” and “Pretender”), and cathartic emo-pop anthems that feel perfectly calibrated to remind you that you can still feel the butterflies (the closing one-two punch of “Anxiety in Real Time” and “Face Towards the Sun,” which finish out the album as if it were a Jimmy Eat World disc circa 2007). With a 32-minute runtime where every moment feels addictive and emotionally satisfying, it’s the kind of record you might just play twice in a row every time you listen to it – a fitting honor for one of the most underrated-yet-durable rock bands that we have right now.

7. Yola Stand for Myself

The best vocal work I heard on an album this year – yes, even better than Adele’s 30 – was this instant classic sophomore LP from British country-soul singer Yola. Over the course of 46 beautifully retro minutes, Yola howls like James Brown (“Break the Bough”) and displays her rich, sumptuous low range (“Great Divide”). She delivers sparkling disco throwbacks (“Dancing Away in Tears”) and songs that sound like Bond themes (“If I Had to Do It All Again”). She belts the year’s most visceral songs about both sexual desire (“Starlight”) and social awakening (the title track). And she takes to task filthy rich, filthy-souled politicians of the world (“Diamond Studded Shoes”) and the sexist assholes of the music industry (“Whatever You Want”) with a shit-kicking, earth-scorching, kiss-off attitude that’s electric and exciting. On her first album, 2019’s Walk Through Fire, it was clear that the woman could sing, but the record as a whole had some of the timidity that often comes naturally with the territory of being a newcomer. There’s nothing remotely timid about Stand for Myself. It’s a bold, fearless record, sung by someone who sounds like a force of nature, delivered by a band of musicians who sound like they grew up playing together, and produced with vintage authenticity by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach. It should have been on every end-of-the-year list.

8. The War on Drugs I Don’t Live Here Anymore

The title track from I Don’t Live Here Anymore – the fifth LP from The War on Drugs – sounds like it was built to be played over some sweeping montage in a coming-of-age movie. That’s not necessarily a first for this band: Since at least 2014’s Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs have excelled at crafting ‘80s-style anthems that wring drama, romance, and wistful nostalgia out of every last guitar solo, drum hit, and synth note. But even by this band’s standards, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” is an extremely powerful evocation of the past. Even that titular phrase aches with the sting of romances that could have been, or roads not taken, or friendships that fell by the wayside, or places that have changed in your absence. Frontman Adam Granduciel doesn’t even necessarily spell all of those things out in his lyrics, but they’re somehow there anyway. That’s the thing with The War on Drugs: the words are only ever one small fraction of what the music communicates. I can’t think of another working artist who uses every aspect of their musical tapestry to convey such depths of feeling and mood as The War on Drugs have done on their last three albums. They are a rock band, but their songs also sprawl like symphonies and chart emotion like film scores. Most people who know me know that I am endlessly obsessed with lyrics and with what a song says. With The War on Drugs, it’s more about the way the songs feel – like how “Living Proof” evokes memories of hiking across a snowy, frozen landscape in the wintertime; or how “Occasional Rain” feels like those moments in your life when you take stock of where you’ve been and recognize how lucky you are. We’re lucky to have this band, too.

9. Patrick Droney - State of the Heart

State of the Heart is the type of album that I thought was gone forever. Growing up, I always had a huge soft spot for mainstream pop-rock bands. Call it what you want: adult alternative, radio rock, soft rock, corporate rock, whatever. A huge part of my musical DNA is grounded in the bands that make of this niche: Matchbox Twenty, Snow Patrol, Keane, The Fray, Safetysuit. Maligned as many of these bands are, there was craft in what they did when they had their moments in the limelight – the craft of big choruses and heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics and musical arrangements where every single guitar lick and drum hit and piano chord sounded as pristine as a shimmering ice sculpture. Most of those bands are still around, but most of them have also tried to find some new frontier or another, leaving behind that arena-ready sonic sweet spot they all occupied in the early-to-mid-2000s. It’s a sound I’ve been missing for the past several years, and it’s a sound that Patrick Droney nails so gamely on his debut full-length that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it. I can’t remember the last time a new artist had me on the hook as immediately as Droney did with the title track on this album. It’s the type of anthem where the chorus hook feels like pushing down the pedal in a fast car on the highway and blasting to 100 mph (or beyond), so propulsive and grand is the melody. It does its theme of young love justice by evoking the heart-racing intensity that we’ve all felt with another person once or twice before. It’s the album’s clear highlight, but it’s not the only moment that feels transcendent: see “When the Lights Go Out,” which wouldn’t have been out of place on this year’s John Mayer album; or “Nowhere Town,” a soul-aching beauty about getting out of a hometown that stifles you and finding your way to better things; or “Glitter,” a delicate little metaphor about grief. Every track hits with a grand, memorable chorus and a ton of heart – because just like those 2000s adult alternative rock bands, Droney knows how to make every single song sound like a single.

10. Olivia Rodrigo SOUR

“Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” On an album full of barbed lines – a lot of them featuring similarly cathartic bits of profanity – that one sticks out as perhaps the most of-the-moment. One aspect of my day job, as a local reporter in my hometown, is to cover the local education beat, and that sometimes means talking to high school students about their experiences. Those conversations have been wrenching over the past two years, as these kids have watched virtually every coming-of-age experience they were supposed to have – homecoming games, sports, high school musicals, proms, graduations, normal life as they knew it with their friends – knocked out of whack. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that the year’s most important and zeitgeisty pop album came from a 17-year-old girl singing about breakups, driver’s licenses, social media, jealousy, and mental health. Much was made of Rodrigo’s clear Taylor Swift influence, which rears its head not only in clear musical hat-tips (the piano line of “1 step forward, 3 steps back” comes directly from “New Year’s Day”) but also in deft lyrical maneuvers that cut like knives (“It took you just two weeks to go off and date her/Guess you didn’t cheat, but you’re still a traitor”). But Rodrigo’s artistic voice is also more unique than most people gave it credit for, effortlessly combining sounds and influences that span generations, from Elvis Costello to Paramore to Swift to Lorde to Billie Eilish. Billy Joel even plays a not-insignificant part in the relationship(s) at the center of the self-righteous banger that is “Déjà Vu.” No wonder SOUR was seemingly the one pop album from 2021 that music fans of all ages could agree on – whether you spent 2021 wondering where your fucking teenage dream went, or looking back at your own teenage years and missing the innocence.

11. The Wallflowers – Exit Wounds

The last time The Wallflowers released an album, I was in the fall of my senior year of college, writing for and editing the arts and entertainment section of my university’s newspaper. The last time The Wallflowers released a great album, I was 15 and nearing the end of my eighth grade year. Once my very favorite band, The Wallflowers have gotten harder to love over the years by simply not being a going concern. Exit Wounds brings them back – in name, at least – for the first Wallflowers record in nine years, and it’s a triumph. No matter that frontman Jakob Dylan is the only man still standing – not just from the original Wallflowers lineup, but from any Wallflowers lineup. Instead of bringing back past band members, Dylan teams up with Butch Walker (who handles production, guitar, keyboards, percussion, and backing vocals) and the two find magic together. A throwback not just to the early roots-rock days of The Wallflowers, but also to the musicians who have influenced Dylan most along the way – you’ll hear flashes of Tom Petty (“Move the River,” “Who’s That Man Walking ‘Round My Garden”), Bruce Springsteen (“Roots and Wings”), Neil Young (“I’ll Let You Down (But I Will Not Give You Up)”), and of course Jakob’s old man Bob (“I Hear The Ocean (When I Wanna Hear Trains)”) – Exit Wounds sounds like a record beamed to 2021 from a different era. 25 years on from Bringing Down the Horse – the album that made me fall in love with music in the first place – few things in 2021 felt nicer than listening to Jakob Dylan’s sing cryptically beautiful poetry over gorgeous rock band arrangements, in his familiar smokey baritone. Here’s hoping that, this time, we won’t have to wait the better part of a decade to hear all that again.

12. Charli AdamsBullseye

Olivia Rodrigo got all the credit for bringing elements of pop-punk and emo back to the center of pop, which is fair enough. But on Bullseye, Charli Adams sounds like Rodrigo’s older, sadder, more jaded sister. It’s the Under My Skin to Sour’s Let Go, or maybe the Hotel Paper to Rodrigo’s The Spirit Room. Whatever comparisons you want to draw to early 2000s pop-punk-meets-teen-pop angst, they’re probably justified. Adams, similar to musical peers like Soccer Mommy and Phoebe Bridgers, hearkens back to an era when honest, soul-bearing female singer-songwriters could rule the radio in millions of minivans. But while Adams calls to mind a lot of things – from gleaming ‘80s teen-movie pop, to ‘90s Lilith Fair girl power, to 2000s minivan rock, to the current reach of the Boygenius extended universe – she’s also cutting a niche all her own on Bullseye. Her melodies are entrancing, her vocals rich and full of feeling, and her lyrics so evocative of a certain point in your life – young adulthood, caught between the last vestiges of youth and the first burns of the “real world” – that Bullseye ends up feeling like a transmission from a past version of yourself. Hearing Adams sing about yearning to be “Seventeen Again,” or about just wanting to dance and “Get High w/ My Friends” gives off a fairly universal snapshot of post-college malaise. “I was good at being young, now I’m growing up,” Adams sings in the latter track. Reliving that period of your life – a time defined by a unique blend of aimlessness, excitement, and anxiety – doesn’t necessarily seem like the most fun prospect most days. But Adams’ songs ache with such an authentic and lived-in emotion that they feel somehow deeply welcoming. Just listen to her sing “Headspace,” a duet with Ruston Kelly about two old high school friends who are in love with each other but who keep missing their connection. Or dive into the depths of “Remember Cloverland,” a song about being a twentysomething and already looking back at the past, wondering if your best days are behind you. As we get older, I think most of us realize that we didn’t actually peak in high school or college. But Bullseye is such a powerful and visceral document of what it’s like to feel that way that it might just whisk you back in time to your own coming-of-age crossroads.

13. Kacey Musgraves - Star-Crossed

Following up an album as beloved as Golden Hour would be an unenviable task in any situation. For Kacey Musgraves, the challenge was compounded by the backlash that comes with breaking through to a new tier of fame, the speculation that she was going to abandon her country roots entirely and go “full pop” (a la Taylor Swift at the 1989 pivot point), and the fact that the thing that inspired Golden Hour in the first place – Kacey’s marriage to Americana star Ruston Kelly – went up in flames in the interim. For all these reasons and more, Star-Crossed arrived to largely mixed reviews and muted fan response. It’s too bad, because while the immediate reaction to Star-Crossed – that it wasn’t as good as Golden Hour – was right on the money, too many listeners never dug beyond that initial opinion to find the considerable treasures buried beneath this album’s surface. So much was made about Star-Crossed being this ambitiously structured “Shakespearean tragedy in three acts,” but in truth, the album feels like a mess: a mess of heartbreak, and of second-guessing yourself, and of missing the person you aren’t with anymore so much it hurts, and of then resenting that person for making you miss them that much. Big, blissful love songs (“Cherry Blossom”) comingle with acidic divorce songs (“Breadwinner”), which bleed into aching songs about regret (“Camera Roll”). On “Hookup Scene,” one of the four or five best songs Kacey has ever written, she sings about how easy it is for people in long-term relationships to start taking for granted everything they have. “Hold on tight, despite the way they make you mad/’Cause you might not even know that you don’t have it so bad,” she advises. For all the bloodletting that breakup and divorce records can allow for (this one included, at points), Star-Crossed is ultimately most exciting when Kacey sounds the least sure of herself. Usually, big mainstream breakthroughs cause artists to get less vulnerable, not more. This record was the opposite, and audiences that expected a big pop pivot were frankly not ready for it at all. But hey, I’ll be here for the critical reassessment 5-10 years down the line.

14. Michigan RattlersThat Kind of Life

One of the best interviews I did this year was with the four guys from Michigan Rattlers. When I talked to them, this Petoskey, Michigan-based band was in the midst of their first post-COVID tour, basking in the privilege of being on the road again, and enjoying their growing buzz in the roots rock/Americana/country/whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it community. “It was like I could feel again,” the band’s drummer, Tony Adia, told me of getting back onstage and playing front of audiences again. I’d wager 2021 didn’t quite take the course Michigan Rattlers – or any musician, for that matter – were hoping for. COVID-19, stubborn bastard that it is, is back disrupting live music again, and who knows what 2022 will hold for that side of the industry. In the case of this mega-talented, under-the-radar band, though, at least they get to exit the year knowing that they made something as sublime as That Kind of Life. Inspired by tight, “get in, get out” rock records from yesteryear – think Born to Run, or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bayou CountyThat Kind of Life pairs a fleet eight-song, 31-minute tracklist with razor-sharp songwriting that flits back and forth from contemplative (sweet, melodic ballads like “The Storm” and “More Than Just a Dream”) to explosive (bar-band bangers like “Sleep In It” and “Desert Heat”). In the ‘90s, these guys probably would have been a multi-platinum major label success story – a la their forerunners like Counting Crows and The Wallflowers. Instead, Michigan Rattlers are a completely independent band making their records and managing their image on their own dime. All the more reason to fall in love with That Kind of Life, which may just be the year’s best country record.

15. Manchester OrchestraThe Million Masks of God

When I first found my way to Manchester Orchestra back in 2009, they were loud, angry, and immediate. The songs kicked you in the teeth and left you a little bit bloody in their pursuit of demanding your full attention. In the years since, though, this band has charted a surprisingly elegant arc away from their punkier, thrashier roots and toward big, symphonic indie rock. The songs these days are quieter, more melancholy, more patient. Rather than pummeling you, they take their time to wrap their arms around you. It’s a new direction that the band demonstrated extremely effectively on 2017’s A Black Mile to the Surface, and one they master completely on their sixth LP, The Million Masks of God. Early on, their albums were packed with the influence of bands like Brand New, Modest Mouse, or Nirvana. Now, you’re more likely to hear bits of U2 (the big stadium-filling “Angel of Death”), Radiohead (the In Rainbows-esque “Let It Storm”), or Nick Drake (the impossibly beautiful one-two punch of “Obstacle” and “Way Back”). Sometimes, you might miss hearing frontman Andy Hull howl like he did on “The Only One” or “I’ve Got Friends.” But hearing the band stretch into new sounds and textures – and do it in such an effortless way – is a genuine thrill. There are too few rock bands left, and even fewer capable of making an album as big, versatile, and self-assured as this one.

16. Coldplay - Music of the Spheres

These days, Coldplay seem to be in a version of the old “One for us, one for them” cycle. Going back 10 years, they’ve traded off making big, bright, technicolor pop albums perfect for stadiums and mainstream radio (Mylo Xyloto, Head Full of Dreams) and making arty, weird, off-kilter records that feel largely unmarketable (Ghost Stories, Everyday Life). The grandiose populist albums seem like gifts to the record company and to fans that still prefer Coldplay to be cranking out hit songs; the latter feel more like the band’s true north, albums that explore all sorts of nooks and crannies of genre and world music influences, and compile them all together into something new. On Music for the Spheres, Coldplay swing back toward the populist side of the coin, and probably just in time: 2019’s Everyday Life, while a surprise Grammy contender for Album of the Year (and an underrated, fascinating bit of globetrotting songcraft) was the lowest-charting album of the band’s career (in America, anyway) and failed to generate a single genuine hit. Spheres does the necessary mainstream course-correcting, spinning off the most propulsive and straightforward pop music Coldplay has made since the similarly Crayola-crayon-colored Mylo Xyloto a decade ago. The gambit worked, with the BTS-featuring “My Universe” giving Coldplay a late-career number-one hit. Even if the album hadn’t functioned as Coldplay’s reapplication to be one of the biggest bands in the world, though, Music for the Spheres would still be way more satisfying than it has any right to be, in part because Coldplay figures out a way to get a little weird (the a cappella choral bliss of “Human Heart,” or the full-fledged symphony-in-rock-song-form that is 10-minute closer “Coloratura”) in between songs that sound like they’ll kill in stadiums when the band hits the road next year (see “Humankind,” the most exuberant Coldplay has sounded since “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall”).

17. John MayerSob Rock

Look, John Mayer can’t help but come across as a bit of a douchebag, even on his own damn album covers. With Sob Rock, though, for maybe the first time, it feels like he’s in on the joke. Recognizing that his days of modern pop stardom are probably over, Mayer dashes back in time to the era of Miami Vice and soft-rock MOR radio. Everything about the way he presents this album pokes fun at that era of music and pop culture, from the way he’s posing with his guitar on the cover (hint: extremely phallic) to the “Best Price” sticker he jokingly fit into the cover design. As far as the actual music is concerned, Mayer isn’t quite ready to abandon the deep wells of earnest sensitivity that he’s spent his career honing. That’s both a good thing and a missed opportunity. It’s good because a fully tongue-in-cheek John Mayer probably wouldn’t be able to write a hymn of modern hopelessness and dissatisfaction as potent as “I Guess I Just Feel Like.” It’s a missed opportunity because the songs where Mayer steers furthest into the ‘80s pastiche style (End of the Innocence-era Don Henley send-ups like lead single “Last Train Home” or late-album deep cut “Shot in the Dark”) are some of the most exciting. Ultimately, Mayer kind of hedges his bets – something he’s frankly been doing since he came back from his sojourn making folk and alt-country records in the early 2010s. Even in bet-hedging mode, though, Mayer is a tour-de-force: Check out how dynamic and fresh his guitar playing sounds on “Wild Blue,” or how effortlessly he puts up top-tier melodies on songs like “Shouldn’t Matter But It Does” and “Carry Me Away.” This guy might not be a mainstream pop superstar anymore, but there’s virtually no one on the radio these days who can rival his knack for dynamite songcraft.

18. Snail MailValentine

It’s funny how musical loops seem to repeat throughout time. Snail Mail is a good example of that circular trend – a young artist who just made an album that sounds both completely current and like it could have come out two decades ago. There’s something about Valentine that evokes the humble origins of a lot of early 2000s indie rock – most particularly Death Cab for Cutie, whose The Photo Album and Transatlanticism feel like clear inspirations. Like those albums, this one exists somewhere between bedroom pop and big, bruising emo catharsis. Snail Mail (the moniker for 22-year-old singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan) thrives in that in-between, crafting songs that can feel massive when they need to (see the explosively defiant chorus of the opening title track, or the emotionally wrung-out orchestral sweep of “Mia”) but that also feel so close to the vest that you can easily imagine someone making them up while sitting on their childhood twin bed (masterpieces like “Headlock” and “Light Blue”). If there’s one thing that’s been missing from rock music over the past 10 years, I think it might be that middleground between the gargantuan arena rock acts and the kids just sitting in their bedrooms and dreaming of greatness. As the rock ‘n’ roll middle class has disappeared, maybe that particular type of musical pathway has disappeared too. Thank goodness, then, for Snail Mail, who make the middle sound vital again, as if it were 2003 and this kind of music was on every TV show playlist and movie soundtrack.

19. CHVRCHES Screen Violence

Can the award for 2021’s most brilliant album elevator pitch go to Screen Violence? On their fourth LP, Scottish synth-pop trio CHVRCHES ditch the deliberate brightness of their last album – the 2018 mainstream pop play Love Is Dead – for a dark and bloody affair. The entire album is framed like the musical version of a slasher film, and the band even brought in horror maestro John Carpenter to remix one of the tracks. You might call it a gimmick, and that kind of label wouldn’t be unfair. But on Screen Violence, the concept works so well that it stops seeming like a device and starts seeming like the mode in which CHVRCHES should have been writing music all along. One of the things I loved about the band’s debut, 2013’s The Bones of What You Believe – and something that’s largely been missing from their music ever since – was the foreboding darkness you could hear creeping into songs like “Gun.” That darkness is back in spades on Screen Violence. Sometimes, the shrouds just prove to be nightmares – like on the standout “Violent Delights,” where frontwoman Lauren Mayberry dreams about watching people she loves as they die. Other times, though, the threats seem very real: See the creepy-as-hell “How Not to Drown,” which sounds like it should play over a horror film scene where a group of friends dashes through the woods pursued by a killer – with one friend after another falling behind and succumbing to their doom. This all sounds very heavy and frightening on paper, and it only becomes more so when you consider that the album was inspired in part by a type of fear that’s so easy to feel in the modern age: the fear of wondering whether the aggressive, threatening “hater” in your Twitter mentions might actually be a murderous psychopath. Social media was supposed to bring us closer to our friends, but what if all it did was bring us closer to the villains of the story? Still, despite all the horror at play, what ultimately makes Screen Violence so rewarding is that it pairs all this darkness and death with creepy, catchy songs that work even if you don’t want to dwell too much on the concept. Highlights like “Asking for a Friend” or “He Said She Said” or “Good Girls” are so damn listenable that you can choose to forget the doom outside your door for a moment and just revel in the pop bliss. Amidst the frankly hellish time that we’re all living through, what could be more welcoming than that?

20. Natalie Hemby Pins & Needles

Natalie Hemby’s debut album, 2017’s Puxico, was one of the best-kept secrets of that year. It was also one of the albums I most passionately went to bat for. Though she was already an A-list Nashville songwriter at the time – having written songs with and/or for the likes of Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, and Carrie Underwood, to name a few – Hemby was mostly a behind-the-scenes talent in 2017, someone you wouldn’t know unless you’re the type of person who pores over liner notes. Since then, though, Hemby has ascended to a new level. In 2018, she co-wrote three songs on Musgraves’ Grammy Album of the Year-winning LP, Golden Hour (“Butterflies,” “Velvet Elvis,” and “Rainbow”), as well as two of the most beloved songs from Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born remake (“Always Remember Us This Way” and “I’ll Never Love Again”). And the next year, Hemby featured alongside Morris, Brandi Carlile, and Amanda Shires as a member of the buzzy country supergroup, The Highwomen. Pins & Needles, Hemby’s long-awaited sophomore solo album, arrived with more buzz and a higher profile, and didn’t squander the extra opportunity. This record splits the difference between the lush balladry that made Puxico gleam (“Lake Air,” “Radio Silence,” “Last Resort”) and infectiously catchy roots-pop that sounds a whole hell of a lot like ‘90s heyday Sheryl Crow (the title track, “Pinwheel,” “It Takes One to Know One”). There’s nothing quite as swooningly gorgeous as Puxico highlights like “Lovers on Display” and “Cairo, IL,” but Hemby’s songwriting craft is so undeniable that it turns nearly every track into its own mini masterclass.

21. Adele 30

30 is a mess, but that’s kind of the point. If there was a problem with 25, the blockbuster 2015 LP that solidified Adele’s status as the most powerful commercial force in contemporary music, it was that it felt too clean. Too safe, too overproduced, too poppy, too willing to hide what was really going on in its creator’s life behind tropes and cliches and studio sheen. There are great songs on that record, but on the whole, it felt like it lacked the cathartic magic that 21 had in spades. 30 is a lot closer to the mark, in part because it’s a much more honest record. In fact, 30 might be even more brutally honest than 21 was. Where Adele’s most beloved album felt almost like a prototypical breakup album, 30 is an off-kilter example of the same artform. Long sprawling songs, numbers that feel like they were ripped straight from ‘50s crooner LPs, voice memos dropped in the middle of tracks, piano ballads stacked on piano ballads; a lot of things about 30 are bizarre or messy or baffling or all of the above. And not every choice works. Opener “Strangers by Nature,” billed as a Judy Garland homage, is a complete misfire; “My Little Love” leans so heavily on recordings from Adele’s real life – including several conversations with her son and one transmission of an emotional breakdown – that it becomes extremely difficult to sit through more than 2-3 times; and the decision to put three six-plus-minute ballads at the end of the record makes for an album that has more endings than The Return of the King. It’s frustrating, because what’s at the core of 30 is masterful and revealing. There are songs as fun and euphoric as any pop music you will hear this year (the one-two punch of “Oh My God” and “Can I Get It” reaffirms why Adele is a pop hitmaker) and songs that plumb the deepest depths of human emotion (the staggering “To Be Loved,” a heartbroken torch song that immediately enters the pantheon). Even in its unruly sprawl, though, 30 is terrific – a testament to the fact that, sometimes, allowing things to be messy trumps trying to make them perfect.

22. Emily Scott RobinsonAmerican Siren

It’s a good sign when everyone who loves your album seems to pick a different favorite song. Often, even with great albums, there’s a consensus around which 1-2 tracks are the highlights. Take The War on Drugs album on this very list, a terrific record that can’t help but be a little dwarfed by just how masterful its title track is. Emily Scott Robinson doesn’t have that problem on American Siren, her sophomore LP. NPR called “Let ‘Em Burn” the best song on the album – and their 19th favorite song of 2021. I’ve had conversations with folks who have singled out “Things You Learn the Hard Way” and “Hometown Hero.” I’m personally partial to either “Old Gods,” the quietly explosive opener, or “Lightning in a Bottle,” a vivid glance back in time to young summer love. Robinson is a storyteller at heart, with an eye for detail and a wry, poignant way with words that recalls John Prine. Fittingly, American Gods came out on Oh Boy Records, the label the late Prine launched and led before his death last year. Like another modern Prine disciple, Jason Isbell, Robinson’s albums double as short story collections, and the narratives that make up American Siren are gripping and emotionally resonant. “Hometown Hero,” about a veteran who commits suicide, is a cousin to Isbell’s own “Dress Blues”; and the aforementioned “Let ‘Em Burn” is a chilling confession from a woman who surveys everything in her seemingly picture-perfect life – the white picket fence, the quiet street, the 15-year marriage, the kids, the tightknit church congregation – and realizes that not a single piece of it makes her truly happy. These songs would be remarkable in any hands, just like Prine’s are. But Robinson’s voice elevates them even further, her Joni Mitchell-ish soprano tone giving every lyric that extra bit of emotional oomph.

23. Bleachers Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night

Jack Antonoff had a big year – and a divisive one. For at least a few weeks in the summer, Antonoff was being treated as Public Enemy No. 1 on Twitter, thanks to the fact that the big-name albums he was producing – Lorde’s Solar Power, St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home, Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails over the Country Club – largely landed with thuds. The narrative seemed to be that Jack was remaking pop in his own (boring) image – and airbrushing the unique artistry of female artists in the meantime. Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, Antonoff’s third album under the Bleachers moniker, arrived right in the middle of this storm, and it took a mostly undeserved beating as a result. I fell in love with the album, though, for one big reason: It’s just about the closest anyone has gotten to sounding like early-’70s Springsteen in recent memory (with the exception of Bruce’s own back-to-the-‘70s send-up on last year’s Letter to You, of course). “How Dare You Want More” sounds like an outtake from The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle, right down to the blaring sax solo and shaggy, block party energy. “Stop Making This Hurt” borrows some of the big bombastic power of “Born to Run.” Bruce himself even appears on “Chinatown,” an escapist “run away with me, babe” anthem in the tradition of “Thunder Road.” If there’s a fault with Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, it’s that the too-quiet, too-unproduced ballads hurt the momentum generated by the gigantic rock ‘n’ roll showstoppers. But even that feels a bit like an homage to Springsteen, seeing as the exact same thing happened on Bruce’s 1973 debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ. And frankly, the highlights here are so good – add the ramshackle “45” and the gleaming “Don’t Go Dark” to the list – that they somehow elevate the less wow-worthy material.

24. Foo Fighters - Medicine at Midnight

I was just about ready to count Foo Fighters out. For so many years, this band seemed to be running on a mixture of autopilot, fumes, and residual good will. While there’s plenty of debate about whether the Foo Fighters have made any legitimately great albums – since the ‘90s, at least – they still always had a reputation for being able to serve up 2-5 undeniable bangers on every album. There’s a reason that songs like “Times Like These” or “Best of You” or “The Pretender” are basically songbook classics at this point, even though you’d be forgiven if you couldn’t remember the names of the albums they came from. But on 2014’s Sonic Highways and 2017’s Concrete & Gold, Dave Grohl and company’s supply of supercharged rock singles seemed to have finally run out. Medicine & Midnight doesn’t necessarily bring back the irresistible singles, but it does take the band’s sound in a new direction without abandoning their comfortable wheelhouse. There are legitimately danceable grooves on this album, from the drill-bit guitar riff of “Cloudspotter” to the syncopated percussive foundation of the title track. And there are still classic-Foos-style arena anthems, too – particularly the bookends, “Making a Fire” and “Love Dies Young,” which boast the kind of big, full-throated rock choruses that this band built its radio bona-fides on. It’s the freshest the Foo Fighters have sounded since at least 2011’s back-to-basics LP Wasting Light, and it gets me excited again for what this band might have up its sleeve in the future.

25. Carly Pearce29: Written In Stone

There were two very high-profile divorce albums this year, from two very high-profile female pop stars. Both of those albums, Kacey Musgraves’ Star-Crossed and Adele’s 30, feature somewhere on this list. Neither excavates the day-to-day, minute-by-minute experience of actually being in the midst of a divorce quite as much as Carly Pearce’s 29: Written in Stone. Early in the year, Pearce dropped a seven-song EP called 29, featuring seven of the 15 songs featured here. It was her way of working through a highly public divorce (from fellow country star Michael Ray) after an extremely truncated marriage (the two tied the knot in October 2019 and Pearce reportedly filed for divorce in June of 2020). Even by itself, that EP would have been deserving of a spot on this list. Pearce had wowed me with her charismatic presence, her melodies, and her rich, emotional songs when she arrived with her debut full-length, Every Little Thing, in 2017. But the follow-up, a self-titled effort released on Valentine’s Day 2020, felt like a textbook “sophomore slump.” It was packed with goopy honeymoon-phase love songs, most of which lacked any nuance or electricity – odd, given that Every Little Thing had ended with a pair of songs (“Honeysuckle” and “Dare Ya”) that evoked all the heart-thumping excitement of new love. 29 brought back everything I’d loved about Pearce and then some. The songs were vulnerable, intimate things with powerhouse vocals and confessional lyrics. I was especially taken with “Day One,” the closer from that EP, which speaks so poignantly to how the heartbreak recovery process, at first, is really just about getting through the first day without that other person. Pearce ultimately decided that she had more to say about her shattered marriage, which led to 29: Written in Stone. Where the EP was mostly the saddest songs, 29: Written in Stone deepens the experience with the extra perspective of time and distance. There’s still plenty of sadness: “Day One” and all six of the other EP songs slot into this tracklist effortlessly. But there’s also spunk and humor and attitude and anger and little vengeful asides. And at the end, when Pearce sings about the next time she’ll give her heart away and fall in love, there’s hope: “I wanna mean it this time,” she tells us; “I’m gonna mean it this time.”

26. Weezer Van Weezer

The past two years have been a mess of a lot of emotions, and most of them have not been positive. Sadness, anxiety, frustration, rage, grief. I’ve personally dealt with plenty of the above, and I’m sure many others have as well. So when vaccine rollouts briefly gave a glimmer of happier days ahead in the late spring and early summer, I seized upon it like a goddamn life raft. In a lot of ways, Van Weezer felt like the musical encapsulation of that moment: big, loud, fun, possibly misguided, maybe a little dumb, thrilling in the moment, and a little bittersweet in retrospect. As a Weezer agnostic – someone who loves this band at their best but knows too well the lows they can sink to at their worst – I fell for this album without hesitation. It felt like every raucous outdoor summer concert you ever saw on the Fourth of July, played to a rowdy crowd of drunk people just waiting for the fireworks to explode with the sound of chunky guitar riffs playing in the background. And so, these silly, stupid, vapid, and incredibly fun rock songs briefly became the sound of my year: “All of the Good Ones”; “I Need Some of That”; “Beginning of the End”; “Sheila Can Do It”; “She Needs Me.” These songs and others sounded so good on runs or windows-down drives or day-drunk island parties that I let myself believe their visions of a carefree summer could come true. The album never sounded as good after the doses of reality started to set in, and by all accounts, Weezer never intended it to soundtrack any part of a global pandemic or the ongoing strife that whole fucking debacle has caused. For a few months, though, when the Big Bad seemed to have been beaten and a truly normal summer seemed to be within grasp, Van Weezer sounded like nothing short of the best goddamn thing in the whole wide world. Maybe someday, it’ll sound like that again.

27. Switchfoot Interrobang

Liking a new Switchfoot record enough to put it on my year-end list was not something I had on my bingo card for 2021. Though they were one of my favorite bands in my teen years – I still hold The Beautiful Letdown and Nothing Is Sound up to be personal classics – Switchfoot wandered away from what made them special years ago (at least in my opinion) and have showed few signs of finding their way back over the course of their last few albums. If you’d asked me 10 years ago, after the last album of theirs I thought was worthwhile (2011’s uneven but occasionally transcendent Vice Verses) I would have told you Switchfoot had the potential to be this generation’s U2: a deeply spiritual rock band with songs big and broad enough to fill a lot of hearts in a lot of stadiums. I wrote them off after three consecutive albums where it felt like their melodic and lyrical tanks were largely emptied of interesting ideas. But Interrobang is improbably the most daring and wildly creative LP this San Diego quintet has made in their 25-plus-year career. There are flickers of their 2000s radio-rock heyday here: Songs like “Beloved,” “Lost ‘Cause” and “The Hard Way” aren’t such a far cry from the soaring arena rock sweet spot that “Meant to Live” and “Dare You to Move” struck so successfully. But elsewhere, Switchfoot throw unexpected ideas at the canvas, whether that’s Beatles-esque psychedelia, or flickers of modern folk, or Prince’s blend of rock music and funk-pop, or the type of garage-y ‘90s surf rock that served as this band’s initial foundation. The resulting record sounds more like a band on their second or third album than a band on their 12th – restlessly exploring new flights of inspiration as they start to realize just how much musical possibility is out there for them to chart. It’s an exciting place to be for a band that, coming into this year, I would have sworn had run its course.

28. Cassadee PopeThrive

Though she took a detour to country music after winning The Voice, Cassadee Pope has always been a pop-punk kid at heart. The further she’s gotten from the auspices of mainstream TV and Blake Shelton, the more you could hear elements of her past (she was the frontwoman for pop-punk band Hey Monday, and even spent some time on the Warped Tour) creeping back into her music. But Thrive is the first time since her old band that Pope has allowed herself to go all-in on her old influences, and it’s a lot of fun to hear her pull out those old teenage playthings. She namedrops Blink-182 on “Same Old Brand New Me,” brings in Nick Wheeler (guitarist for The All-American Rejects) as a producer and co-writer on more than half the tracks, and even duets with Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind fame on “Mind Your Own.” People raised on the same diet of early 2000s angst as Pope will pick up plenty of other influences and sonic reference points across the album’s 13 tracks, from Avril Lavigne to Fall Out Boy to Weezer to Jimmy Eat World. Sure, it’s a nostalgia trip, and a more obvious one than, say, Olivia Rodrigo’s clever pastiche of influences. But Pope’s clear love for this music – as well as the stellar voice she brings to the proceedings, too often something that pop-punk was missing even in its glory days – elevates Thrive above pure throwback.

29. Morgan Wade Reckless

“What were you like when you were a little wilder?/Why don’t you show me.” Those two lines, from Morgan Wade’s sublime debut single “Wilder Days,” evoke so much with so little. The punchline of the song’s chorus is “I wish I’d known you in your wilder days,” and the way that line gets paid off throughout the song makes “Wilder Days” one of the smartest, most moving bits of songwriting I heard all year. It’s a song about falling for someone with dizzying speed, like you used to when you were young and that seemed like the only way to do it. As we get older, we shed a lot of the trappings of our youthful selves: our impulsiveness, our willingness to leap without looking, our wildness. “Wilder Days” gives voice to the idea of wanting to see behind the curtain of who a person is now – their older, wiser, more together self – to the person they used to be. Because falling in love at 17, while it was reckless and scary and wild, was also freeing, and fun, and unforgettable. The way Wade sings – on “Wilder Days” and throughout this album’s nine other Petty-meets-Etheridge country-rock songs – feels like a bid to reclaim a bit of our younger, more passionate selves. It’s a reminder that, while maybe we ain’t that young anymore, it’s not such a bad thing to revisit our wilder days every once in a while – even if it’s just for a night.

30. Madi DiazHistory of a Feeling

To a lot of people, “singer-songwriter music” is shorthand for sadness. From Bob Dylan to Bon Iver to Taylor Swift to Olivia Rodrigo, so many artists who operate in this vein are known for albums and songs that exorcise heartbreak as part of the songwriting process. A singer-songwriter album, in other words, is typically pretty good company if you need to wallow in your own heartbreak and have a good cry. I think we’re less accustomed to hearing singer-songwriter albums that are piled high with anger and rage, or with all the volatile emotions that can come with that side of the sadness coin. Wallowing in heartbreak is one thing; taking a (metaphorical) axe to the person who broke your heart is quite another, and it doesn’t always fit with our idea of soft, melancholy acoustic music. Part of what makes Madi Diaz’s History of a Feeling so exciting is that it’s the rare “sad singer-songwriter album” that dwells way more in the anger, volatility, and unpredictability of heartbreak than in the sadness. The first song on the record is literally called “Rage,” and the key lyric sees Diaz rejecting the one piece of advice that anyone who has ever been wronged by heartbreak has probably received: “Forgive and forget,” Diaz sings; “Fuck you; fuck that.” But far from being the kind of album-length screed that bitter, heartbroken pop-punk frontmen were writing about their exes back in the early 2000s, History of a Feeling ends up being a deeply complex album about going through the stages of grief at the end of a relationship and feeling every bit of seething anger, nagging betrayal, resentful blame, stinging loneliness, and aching need that entails. It’s not all bitter kiss-off lines like “I hope you fuck her with your eyes closed/And think of me,” though those do come. Instead, these songs are portraits of heartbreak that mostly dwell in the grey areas. Case-in-point is ”Man In Me,” a tremendous bit of songwriting clearly inspired by Diaz’s split from longtime partner Teddy Geiger, who came out as a transgender woman in 2017. That song is so wrenching and so emotionally nuanced in how it reckons with its subject matter that, even in the well-trodden annals of heartbreak songs, it feels like it has something new to say.

Honorable Mentions

In any given year, there are way more great albums that hit my radar than I can fit into a top 30. Here are some quick shouts for 15 other albums from 2021 that I loved but couldn’t quite find room for on the main list.

  • Billy Strings going prog-metal-meets-bluegrass on his ambitious, masterfully-played sophomore album, Renewal.
  • Brandi Carlile singing her heart out on the rich, soulful, heartfelt In These Silent Days
  • Christian Lopez pairing his pop-leaning country chops with big, arena-sized choruses on the explosive, thrilling The Other Side.
  • Eric Church showing that not every artist can pull off a double album (his two-discs-and-then-some Heart & Soul project) but still delivering a dozen masterful country-rock songs along the way, especially on the Heart half.
  • Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall daring to go more intimate and stripped down than any mainstream act has gone on a major label release in recent memory, on the lovely songs-by-the-campfire “live” album, The Marfa Tapes.
  • Kalie Shorr teaming up with Butch Walker on the EP I Got Here by Accident, to make the record that finally vindicates all her early 2000s pop-punk and emo influences.
  • Lainey Wilson finally finding her way to the mainstream country music success that she’s deserved for years, on the memorable, charismatic Sayin’ What I’m Thinking.
  • Matt Nathanson setting aside some time in quarantine to record his own faithful, fascinating take on his favorite album ever, U2’s Achtung Baby, for the occasion of its 20th anniversary.
  • Mickey Guyton finally escaping “EP purgatory” and releasing the big, bombastic mainstream country record she was born to make, with Remember Her Name.
  • The Night Game serving up a reminder that Martin Johnson (formerly of Boys Like Girls) is one of the 5-10 sharpest pop writers of his time, with the stellar Dog Years.
  • Old Dominion continuing to do unapologetically poppy, fun, lighthearted pop country better than anyone else in Nashville, on the light and breezy Time, Tequila & Therapy.
  • Parker Millsap leading an aces band through a catchy, smart, timeless-sounding set of songs on the fantastic Be Here Instead.
  • The Record Company barnstorming their way through Black Keys-esque blues rock on the raucous, wild, and aptly named Play Loud; “Lady Lila” would be on any list I’d make of the best songs of the year.
  • Taylor Swift continuing her uber-prolific pandemic era with not one but two re-recordings of her classic albums. The “vault” collections that came with both albums, Fearless and Red, would both be good enough to contend for my top 30, had Taylor released them as proper albums.
  • Wild Pink continuing to own their niche of the indie rock galaxy with A Billion Little Lights, an album full of big, bright, atmospheric songs that hit somewhere between Death Cab for Cutie and The War on Drugs. The album’s closer, “Die Outside,” is as good as anything I heard this year.

The 2020 Re-Rank

2020 is a tough year to re-rank. All of these albums (as well as several that missed the top 10) touched such a nerve emotionally during such a fraught time that putting them in any order of preference seems almost perverse. But looking back at 2020 and remembering what it was to live it, evermore swims to the top of the heap as the album I needed most. As I wrote last year, that album dropped at the end of a truly dreadful week and kept me afloat through a tough holiday season. It means the world to me.

  1. Taylor Swiftevermore
  2. Katie PruittExpectations
  3. Taylor Swift - folklore
  4. Jason Isbell and the 400 UnitReunions
  5. Ken YatesQuiet Talkers
  6. Bruce SpringsteenLetter to You
  7. Donovan WoodsWithout People
  8. The ChicksGaslighter
  9. The KillersImploding the Mirage
  10. Ruston KellyShape & Destroy

2011 Re-Rank

2011 was the first year I ever made a full end-of-the-year list, with blurbs and all. It’s fun looking back on that list, which was one of my first big music writing projects, and comparing it to the way I see the albums of 2011 in hindsight.

  1. The Dangerous SummerWar Paint
  2. Butch WalkerThe Spade
  3. The Horrible CrowesElsie
  4. Bon IverBon Iver, Bon Iver
  5. The DamnwellsNo One Listens to the Band Anymore
  6. Dawes Nothing Is Wrong
  7. Matt NathansonModern Love
  8. Coldplay Mylo Xyloto
  9. Jack’s MannequinPeople & Things
  10. Adele 21
  11. The Civil Wars Barton Hollow
  12. Jason Isbell Here We Rest
  13. Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
  14. M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
  15. Yellowcard When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes
  16. Eric ChurchChief
  17. Transit Listen and Forgive
  18. Foo FightersWasting Light
  19. Augustana Augustana
  20. Charlie SimpsonYoung Pilgrim
  21. Mat Kearney Young Love
  22. Florence + The MachineCeremonials
  23. Switchfoot Vice Verses
  24. The Decemberists The King Is Dead
  25. Miranda Lambert Four the Record
  26. Will HogeNumber Seven
  27. Stolen SilverStolen Silver
  28. The SwellersGood for Me
  29. Iron & Wine Kiss Each Other Clean
  30. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying BirdsNoel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds