We find ourselves once again at the end of a year. And once again it was a year that found us, as a society, facing new challenges in a world reshaped by a pandemic. As we close the door on 2021, I wanted to take a quick moment to thank everyone who read this website this year. We all went through this together, and I’m as appreciative as ever for having an outlet to write about things I’m passionate about and share with likeminded readers.
Ok, pleasantries dispensed … let’s rank things.
Note: Check the bottom of this post for links to individual contributor lists.
The Top Albums of 2021
It’s during those first 20 seconds that anything feels possible – that ascending bubbly tone is a countdown of sorts towards 2021’s best rock and roll record, Glow On. It doesn’t feel possible that a record like Turnstile’s third album should exist but thankfully it does as the Baltimore hardcore heroes fashion out Glow On with go-go, R&B, the kitchen sink and more within their relentless style of the band’s energetic hardcore. I simply cannot geek out enough about this record. The opening track that bubbly tone leads into? “MYSTERY” – are you kidding me? Right after those 20 seconds you’re immediately kicked in the face with the song’s pulsating beat. There’s also moments like the breezy flow of “HOLIDAY,” the frenzied “DON’T PLAY,” and blissed out vibe of the Blood Orange collaboration “ALIEN LOVE CALL.” And Glow On doesn’t skimp on the pit hits either, with “WILD WRLD” and “ENDLESS.” Pat McCrory and Brady Ebert weave together ridiculous riffs and power chords while Franz Lyons and Daniel Fang provide Glow On with its backbone (see: “FLY AGAIN” and “NEW HEART DESIGN”). But it’s Brendan Yates’ contagious scream-shout singing that gives the record its heart and soul (his performance on tracks like “T.L.C. (TURNSTILE LOVE CONNECTION)” and “LONELY DEZIRES” is what separates Turnstile from the rest of the pack). Glow On is the type of record that people literally shit themselves to – it’s an one of a kind rock record that will withstand the test of time and ever-changing trends because it refuses to chase them, instead creating them. And if there’s just one thing the listener takes away from Glow On, hopefully it’s from “NO SURPRISE”: “You really gotta see it live to get it.” – Drew Beringer
From the sweeping beauty of “Inaudible” to the picturesque closer of “The Internet,” it’s really quite amazing what Manchester Orchestra were able to capture on the sprawling The Million Masks of God. In this 11-track, 46-minute set Manchester Orchestra have brought the best parts of their sound to the forefront, and it’s really no wonder why so many outlets have rightfully recognized this opus as a true work of art. “Angel of Death” sounds like it could have been written by U2 during their creative peak, and it remains one of my favorite songs to be released during this ultra-loaded year. As with many other great records, this album picks up momentum as it majestically unfolds with other gems found in the middle sequencing like lead single, ”Bed Head,” and the side B opener “Telepath,” which does its best to transport the listener into the world this band has created on this LP. With such lofty goals set forth on this album, it’s no wonder why it’s beauty has found its way into our hearts and our staff’s Top-5 records to be released in 2021. – Adam Grundy
You can probably count on one hand the metalcore bands that continue to release exciting music after two decades of existence. And it’s probably even less than that when you factor in bands releasing their best material this deep into a career. But that’s exactly what Radical is – a double LP that showcases the Buffalo legends’ knack for inventive riffing (Jordan Buckley and Andy Williams continue to deploy some of the nastiest riffs known to mankind) along with Keith Buckley’s clairvoyant lyricism. Tracks like “Sly,” “The Whip,” and “All This And War” are some of the heaviest tracks of 2021, while “Planet Shit,” “Desperate Times,” and “We Go Together” serve as anthems to the world’s inevitable doom. But it’s “With Feathers” that highlights Radical – a touching tribute to the Buckley’s late sister that also pushes Every Time I Die’s songwriting boundaries to new levels. – Drew Beringer
It’s impossible to tell the story of music in 2021 without discussing Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR. Rodrigo’s music spread like wildfire throughout the year, from the first single “Drivers License” becoming a viral sensation upon its release in January to the entirety of SOUR dropping in May. Rodrigo channeled everything we love about singers like Hayley Williams, Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavigne and Taylor Swift. Her songs hook you in, the lyrics don’t hold back on how she feels and she’s not afraid to play with a number of different genres of music.
SOUR immediately lets you know what you’re in for, with the rocking pop punk opener “brutal”, where she rattles off all of her insecurities and doesn’t care who knows about them. Rodrigo further explores pop punk later in the album, with the “Misery Business”-esque “good 4 u”, one of the best songs/singles off the record. While two of the singles are in this style, she also toys with indie rock on “deja vu”, while giving it a touch of emo with the lyrics “So when you gonna tell her / That we did that, too? / She thinks it’s special / But it’s all reused / That was our place, I found it first / I made the jokes you tell to her when she’s with you / Do you get déjà vu when she’s with you?”
While Rodrigo doesn’t hesitate in exploring her inner punk or emo side, it’s her moments of tenderness that truly show how special of an artist she is. There’s “happier” where she sings about wanting an ex to be happy, but not happier than they were with her and of course, how can I not mention the best bridge of 2021 on “Drivers License”. However, it’s the final two tracks on the album, “favorite crime” and “hope ur ok”, that show Rodrigo’s talent without all the guitars and beats on earlier tracks. It’s hard to describe in the beauty in album closer “hope ur ok”, but after hearing it for the first time you can’t help but be floored by the range she showed throughout the album, going from “brutal” to “hope ur ok.”
Sour will be a record that’s discussed for years to come and it will be fascinating to see how it holds up as time goes on. I don’t believe it’s hyperbole to say that this album could be the Jagged Little Pill of the 2020’s. The two albums share so many of the same traits, including a young singer/songwriter wearing her heart on her sleeve and not being afraid to be open and honest in their vocals. Both records have the same energy, power and most of all, showcases an amazing singer. It’s not wrong to believe 2021 belonged to Rodrigo and that SOUR should be looked at as an instant classic. – Brett Bodner
Foxing can’t help but put everything they have into their music. After swinging for the fences with 2018’s instant classic Nearer My God, the St. Louis trio doubled down with Draw Down The Moon, incorporating bigger choruses and full blown pop moments into the band’s already one of a kind sound. From the electrifying opener “737” to the somber yet bombastic closer “Speak With The Dead,” Draw Down The Moon is eclectic journey through vocalist Conor Murphy’s psyche. It’s not often that a band can go back-to-back with stunning sonic reinventions but then again not every band is Foxing. – Drew Beringer
Fresh off the success of their great 2020 album, Imploding the Mirage, The Killers have shown that their limits know no bounds as they released arguably their best effort to date in Pressure Machine. Brandon Flowers and his bandmates’ storytelling on this album hit a new creative peak as they wove in the story of a small town struggling with making ends meet paired with focused songs that matched the dialogue found in the extended versions of these songs perfectly. Pressure Machine works best when Flowers’ storytelling hits a unique groove on songs like “Quiet Town,” where he narrates with Springsteen-esque brilliance with, “When we first hear opioid stories, they were always in whispering tones / Now banners of sorrow mark the front steps of childhood homes / Parents wept through daddy’s girl eulogies / And merit badge milestones with their daughters and sons / Laying there lifeless in their suits and gowns/ Somebody’s been keepin’ secrets.” It is truly remarkable how The Killers’ career arc led them to this unique moment in time to keep their own creative juices flowing while still remaining true to themselves as both musicians and artists. Everything comes to a head on the title track with the brilliant lyrics of, “Sweatin’ it out in the pressure machine / Good ‘til the last drop.” I couldn’t agree more. – Adam Grundy
Of all of the current top 40 darlings and pop stars trying their hand at creating something new (or rehashing something for vibes), Billie Eilish’s edge is her refusal to be categorized based on how she looks, what she wears, or what kind of music she wants to make. After the superstardom achieved through “Bad Guy” and her dark, industrial tinged debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, it would have been easy to churn out a sequel built around the same unique production executed by her brother, Finneas. But while there are shades of that in Happier Than Ever – the mischievous bounce of “Therefore I Am,” the strange growl that opens “I Didn’t Change My Number” – the album does everything necessary to carve out its own identity.
Some of the album’s weakest moments are actually its slowest. Songs like opener “Getting Older” or “Halley’s Comet” tend to get lost amongst the more pronounced experiments here, from the self-explainable “Billie Bossa Nova” to the straight-up surreal “GOLDWING” and the Nine Inch Nail influenced “Oxytocin.”. To make all of these styles play off of each other on the same record is an achievement on its own, but to do so while firmly reacting to becoming a young woman in the public eye? This ambition alone is what sets Eilish a cut above the rest. – Aaron Mook
Screen Violence is the type of album led by often high-concept thematic and musical threads to resounding success. Screen Violence is the album I have been waiting for from CHVRCHES. Over 43 minutes, Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty created a very personal album out of something that was initially supposed to be pure escapism. Recording began in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic while the band lived their lives through screens; the album title became literal.
In the first single, “He Said She Said,” Mayberry twists expectations on women into a powerful banger; when she sings, “he said you need to be fed but keep an eye on your waistline,” it hurts because we know how much damage those statements cause. On the epic “California,” we’re assured of one of the most important lessons, especially for artists: “no one ever tells you there’s freedom in failure.” The Robert Smith feature on “How Not to Drown” is undoubtedly a dream come true for the synth-pop Scots, despite its explorations of depression and anxiety.
Songs like “Violent Delights” and “Final Girl” (I’m glad Mayberry sings with her accent) soar while pulling from darker undertones. To me, Screen Violence is the perfect CHVRCHES album: groovy, confident, incredibly bright keyboards and vocals, relevant social and personal messaging, and a mysterious undertone running throughout. – Mary Varvaris
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. – Craig Manning
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. With The War on Drugs, it’s all 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. – Craig Manning
If you want the extended version on why this album rules, no one wrote about it better than Craig this year. But the fast version is that Noah Gundersen is on my shortlist for best songwriters alive right now, and he brought all of his talents to bear on this masterwork. It’s the album I’ve always wanted him to write, the perfect combination of his magnetic lyricism mixed with just enough pop-flourish. There’s an effortlessness to the brilliance. The songs swell with emotion, grace, and powerful confidence. And over the past few months, it’s been made clear these are the songs made for late nights by the fire. Wrapped in blankets, wrapped in music, cuddled next to the emotions the words pull from our skin. The run of “The Coast,” “Exit Signs,” and “Atlantis” is downright incredible, but I have nothing but praise for the album as a whole. It’s a perfect exercise in how subtlety can be a phenomenal bedrock to just letting the songs speak for themselves. – Jason Tate
I was relatively new to the Wolf Alice bandwagon at the beginning of this year. I’d heard their name dropped in several news outlets, so I decided to take a chance on Blue Weekend. What I wasn’t expecting was for my jaw to nearly drop all the way off as songs like “The Beach” and “Lipstick on the Glass” transported me into a wall of sound that I couldn’t escape from, even if I had any desire to. The band’s crisp songwriting and harmonies found on the beautifully-composed “Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love)” made me a strong believer in Wolf Alice. As I began to backtrack into their discography, I found small “breadcrumbs” of potential on their early records that would hint at the band’s ability to lead them to arguably their best album to date on Blue Weekend. The lesson here is: it’s never too late to discover your next favorite artist. – Adam Grundy
Hayley Williams is one of the finest singers and writers of our generation. Anyone who has followed Paramore has known this fact for years – now, the stragglers have caught on. As the vocalist of Paramore, Williams utilises her kaleidoscopic vocal range to suit pop-punk music, post-rock, funk and dabbles in new wave music. More often than not, her voice soars beyond my comprehension. She finds new keys and tones within excruciatingly personal material for her solo albums, Petals for Armor, and her latest, this year’s Flowers for Vases/descansos.
Petals for Armor signalled a new Hayley Williams. The album showcased an artist without fear of experimenting in electronic music, funk or R&B. Petals for Armor is segmented into three sections. The first is full of barely contained rage, the second propels calm and forgiveness into the spotlight, and the third is about moving on. In a way, the experimentation and range of moods are akin to Paramore’s self-titled effort.
Flowers for Vases/descansos (in Spanish, descansos means rest) finds a woman at the depression and acceptance stages of grief. The music mirrors the lyrics – Flowers is primarily based on the acoustic guitar and piano, featuring some Spanish licks (“Asystole”) and delicate folk music, with some surprises thrown in between. Electric and bass guitars are perfectly placed, transforming “My Limb” into a gothic horror picture. Hayley Williams might have found her resting place to let go of her grief and loss, of her divorce and the pain of losing people, but Flowers for Vases/descansos isn’t for the faint of heart. – Mary Varvaris
In a world where Bruce Springsteen just sold his music catalog to Sony for $500 million, Taylor Swift is out here re-recording her old records so she can take back control of the masters of her earlier records. Fans were gifted with two albums from the singer’s admirable project in 2021 after she released new versions of Fearless and Red. While both records gave listeners plenty to enjoy, it was Red (Taylor’s Version) that stood out the most in 2021.
Red is fan favorite, especially here with our resident Swifties at Chorus.fm, and one many point to as the album where Swift merged her country roots with pop stardom. Re-recording this classic may have seemed like a tall task, but leave it to T-Swift to shatter everyone’s expectations. The record consisted of a whopping 30 songs that somehow didn’t feel overwhelming. Instead, we were all gifted with a full set songs that show how much Swift has grown as a singer/musician. The one-two punch of “State of Grace” and “Red” hit harder and feel like more complete tracks, even though both are seen as staples of her catalog. The re-working of songs for the better was especially felt on songs like “Girl at Home”, where she completely flipped the script on the original, but it gave the track some much needed juice and made it stronger.
While we were all gifted with a re-working of the original album, it was the b-sides that may have been the biggest surprise. There were epic pairings where Swift got to sing with our lord and savior Phoebe Bridgers on “Nothing New”, Chris Stapleton on “I Bet You Think About Me” and Ed Sheeran also joined the party on “Run.” Swift also shines on other vault tracks like “Message in a Bottle” and “The Very First Night.” However, the track that delivered the most buzz and sent the internet into a frenzy though was the 10-minute epic expanded edition of “All Too Well.” Rumors of its existence floated around for years, but fans finally got to pump this song into their ears and helped send it to the top of the charts. I don’t think people who say this is Taylor’s “Stairway to Heaven” are crazy at all. The songwriting and composition of the song is wildly impressive. The 10 minutes soar by, as the visual storytelling here paints images so clear in your mind that it puts you right there in the scene, like you’re sitting watching a 3D movie. What a way to bring this re-recorded album to a close.
To be completely honest, for years I held off on listening to Taylor Swift thinking I was too cool and that her music wasn’t for me. Last year, I caved after folklore and evermore blew me away and I realized I was a moron who was missing out on one of the best songwriters of our day. Admittedly, when I listened to Red (Taylor’s Version) for the first time, it was truly the first time I had heard some of the songs so I probably have a different viewpoint on many on these songs compared to those who have been in the Taylor Swift game longer. Still, it inspired me to listen to the original and further fueled my belief that this re-worked record was one of the best albums of 2021. – Brett Bodner
A grand slam in terms of taking a new direction. Stepping away from their traditional blackgaze sound, 2021 saw Deafheaven tipping the scales back a bit from blast beats and harsh vocals in favor of employing new wave drenched guitars and dream pop vocal melodies, reserving the heavier bits as well placed surprises for long time fans. Each song here feels like a masterclass in dynamics — rarely staying at just one level for more than a minute or two, but never quite going so left of center that anything feels like it wasn’t meant to be exactly where it is. Daniel Tracy gets a special shout-out here for lighting up the entire record with tasteful drum grooves and silky fills that bring bustling life to even the record’s most hypnotizing segments. A robust, gorgeous shoegaze adjacent record in a year that the genre severely lacked presence. – Trevor Graham
Vince’s latest, self titled record wound up being a somewhat controversial entry into his catalogue, mostly due to its short run time and mellow attitude. But to these ears, hearing him keep things low key and straightforward was a refreshing twist to follow an ambitious stretch of years. Backed by one of hip hop’s busiest producers, Kenny Beats, Vince weaves his way through 22 minutes of pillowy compositions with an effortless swagger that rivals even his most eccentric performances. Opener “ARE YOU WITH THAT” leans even further into the vibe, complete with sung vocals and a melodic hook we haven’t heard from the Long Beach veteran since “Summertime”, the side one closer of his breakthrough 2016 double album. The rumor all year was that this album was also meant to be part one of a couplet, but the tentative Ramona Park Broke My Heart has yet to find its way to the surface. In any case, this album proved itself to be more than enough reason to keep Vince Staples close to our hearts. – Trevor Graham
It only takes about 45 seconds for the muthafuckin’ Gami gang to set the tone on the Baltimore duo’s second full length record. Bigger and grander than their excellent debut Somewhere City, Origami Angel unleash an insane mix of emo, pop-punk, and sometimes hardcore over the course the 20-track album. But despite its length, it still feels brisk and relevant – never overstaying their visit in one particular style. Guitarist Ryland Heagy and drummer Pat Doherty show off their imaginative songwriting skills via bombastic numbers like “Self-Destruct” and “Bossa Nova Corps,” sticky-sweet choruses in “Noah Fence” and “Kno U,” and a mix of tenderness (“Greenbelt Station” and “Footloose Cannonball Brothers”), making Gami Gang is a shining beacon in an otherwise dark 2021. – Drew Beringer
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. – Craig Manning
Not many bands approaching 30 years of activity have the skills to produce a run of studio albums as consistent as Modest Mouse’s. Even with 2015’s Strangers to Ourselves often being deemed the band’s weakest output to date (despite some killer one-off tracks), their previous five studio albums have more or less been cemented as pillars of indie-rock. It seems Isaac Brock and his ever-changing rotation of collaborators heard the call for reinvention, as The Golden Casket brings back everything that made the band so special for over 25 years – thematic consistency and a strong sense of direction.
The Golden Casket is a Modest Mouse record first and a pop record about the perils of technology second. Opting for synthesizers and electronic instrumentation ahead of guitars, Brock crafts pop songs with a purpose, such as the cheery, festival-ready anthem “The Sun Hasn’t Left.” But these occasional bursts of light don’t pull the band away from their emotional core or their penchant for experimentation. “We Are Between” is another quintessential lead single, boasting a classic Modest Mouse riff over Talking Heads-inspired funk. But later on, Brock nearly whispers an affectionate lullabye to his youngest child on “Lace Your Shoes,” just two tracks before the band tries their hand at urgent post-punk guitar work on “Japanese Trees.” Modest Mouse may never make another Moon & Antarctica, but The Golden Casket is a testament to their reputation as one of the greatest indie-rock bands of all time. – Aaron Mook
As much as I truly loved Halsey’s last album, 2020’s Manic, she kicked the metaphorical field goal out of the stadium on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. Produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (of NIN-fame), this coming of age record paints her on a throne with her child just begging for naysayers to state that she has to “earn” that right to call herself a queen. Halsey quickly quiets her critics on songs like “Easier Than Lying,” as she commands the song with veteran-ease as she sings, “I’m only whatever you make me / And you make me more and more a villain every day / But you don’t know, you reap, you sow / Whatever you give to me / From yourself you take / Well, if you’re a hater / Then hate the creator / It’s in your image I’m made.” Bow down, the queen was here all along. – Adam Grundy
There’s a reason why Illusory Walls’ liner notes defiantly state “We never broke up and we never will.” After being left for dead by the emo revivalists after 2016’s misunderstood third album Always Foreign, The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die returned with a fiery and pointed record that shows the now quintet band’s future is brighter and more focused than ever. Illusory Walls is more proggy and experimental than ever before, heavily leaning on guitarist Chris Teti’s expert playing. Flex that in with David Bello’s shrewd lyricism and the one-two punch of Bello and Katie Dvorak’s dual vocals and you have one of the coolest sounding records of the year. And there are so many memorable moments on Illusory Walls – the intoxicating riffing in “Invading the World of the Guilty as a Spirit of Vengeance” into the darkness of “Died in the Prison of the Holy Office” with infectious pop-punk like “Queen Sophie for President” and the thoughtful indie of “Blank // Drone” and “Blank // Worker.” But all that is just a set up for the two part epic of “Infinite Josh” and “Fewer Afraid,” both clocking in at nearly 16 and 20 minutes, respectively. In most instances, two tracks tacking up nearly 40 minutes of run time can result in repetitive drudge but Teti (who also produced the record) and company arrange and compile both songs in ways that keep each building towards their spectacular crescendos, capping off this record in a way that only this band could accomplish. – Drew Beringer
Let’s be honest — when the lead single “Be Sweet” dropped, it was game over. It took just a little over three minutes to completely squash any leftover debate about the quality of Michelle Zauner’s impending third LP. This left three months for the remainder of Jubilee to marinate in the hype, and the first sunny weekend of June saw it unflinchingly live up to every last ounce. Earning its name, Jubilee is a celebration of healing and strength, the belief in hope and the dare to love. A confident, expertly balanced indie pop record with an unexpected emphasis on “pop”. Explosive singles, intimate anthems, and an end credits worthy closer — it’s simply W’s all the way down. And if writing one of the year’s greatest albums wasn’t enough, Zauner also released the widely acclaimed memoir, Crying In H Mart — expressing in vivid detail her association with food and the process of grief. Between the two, she provided a deeply human connection for those of us that spent 2021 searching for any sign of solid ground. – Trevor Graham
I thought Pale Waves’ debut was an album with good songs, but one that didn’t quite work together as a whole. Their follow-up fixes all those issues. Moving more toward an early 2000’s pop-punk sound, the songs fit together like a Lego set. It’s an album that I just find fun to listen to, an album filled with all this pent-up angst and a slight undercurrent of that punk-brattiness I love so much. It has an attitude and a vibe that it nails so perfectly it feels like it should be on the shelf between Avril Lavigne, Box Car Racer, and Sum 41 in a Target in 2002. An album where I can almost feel the plastic wrap of the CD when I look at the cover. – Jason Tate
Spiritbox’s Eternal Blue came out of the left field for me this year. They weren’t a band on my radar at all, and then suddenly, I started seeing a bunch of mentions about the band’s new album in our forums and the release date post. Like I do, I figured, sure, I might as well check them out. And then the album became one of my most played of the year. It’s ostensibly a metal album that walks well between that space and soaring anthems led by Courtney LaPlante’s otherworldly vocals, often within in the same song. It’s probably a cliche to describe the album as beautifully brutal, but it just works so well to represent the shift between scream and harmony. While djent adjacent music has never really been a genre I spent much time in, there’s undeniable infectiousness to these songs that kept pulling me back for more. 2021 was a year that saw me reaching for heavier music quite frequently; my mood is often reflected in the songs I choose to play. And a big catalyst was this album. – Jason Tate
Wild Pink has been known to split the difference between americana and indie rock, carving out a little niche to create breezy, textured soundscapes that envelope listeners in their atmosphere. A Billion Little Lights sees the band expanding that sound to a level that can only be described as simply cinematic. Songs so rich with texture that they feel like a physical world you can live & breathe in, sequenced expertly into one another like scenes from a film. Frontman John Ross cleverly tucks his vocals into the mix just enough keep catchy melodies like that of “Die Outside” and “Oversharers Anonymous” ringing in the listener’s head long after their runtime has expired — but not so prominently that they’re leaned on to carry the songs themselves. Plus, “Why can’t both be true? You’re a fucking baby, but your pain is valid too” might be a contender for the most hilariously relatable lyric of all time. – Trevor Graham
Craig Jenkins wrote my favorite piece on Lil Nas X this year and I think he distills down the nature of this album’s duality as well as anyone can. From the brash confidence to the heartbreak, the album bends and flows, matching and then defying expectations. Earlier this year I joked that “Lost in the Citadel” was one of the best pop-punk songs of the decade, but what I was reaching for, beyond some stylistic similarities, is the marriage of extremely relatable lyrical content over a catchy song. It’s a powerful combination and it comes across almost effortlessly here. It’s an album of unapologetic grandioseness; however, it’s in the later half of the album where there are moments of scalpel sharp introspection that turn the listeners ear and elevate beyond the catchy singles and tailor-made to piss off Fox News’ veneer. – Jason Tate
Thrice never fails to impress. For over 22 years, they’ve been a band that isn’t afraid to think outside the box and experiment with different sounds. Each record they create is unique in its own way and this trend continued in 2021 as the band released Horizons/East this past September. While the album did contain some signature Thrice rockers like “The Dreamer” and “Summer Set Fire to the Rain”, the band also found new ways to make their type of alt rock explode from your speakers. The best example is “Scavengers”, which was carried by an Eddie Breckenridge bass line, before the rest of the band kicked in on one of the most powerful choruses on the record.
However, you can’t pigeon hole Thrice as a rock band, because they’re always throwing something new at their listeners. In addition to tracks that are 100% Thrice songs, there are also tracks that sound jazzy like “Dandelion Wine”, songs sprinkled with piano like “Northern Lights” and then there’s “Still Life”, which harkened back to the style they played around with throughout the lighter volumes of the The Alchemy Index. The vintage and experimental sides of the band blend together like a smoothie on “Robot Soft Exorcism”, which might as well be the mission statement of Horizons/East as it combines digital elements with the guitar tones fans have long loved. Overall, this album continues to showcase that this band is made up of excellent musicians, with each piece as important as the next from Dustin Kensrue’s vocals to Teppei Teranishi’s riffs and all the way to the rhythms of drummer Riley Breckenridge. – Brett Bodner
Citizen have escaped from whatever has been holding them back. The Ohio group started as a decent emo band. Their 2011 EP, Young States, showed their potential while their debut album, Youth, released in 2013, saw them quickly gain a dedicated following on Tumblr. While I have a nostalgic attachment to their early material, there’s no doubt that songs like “The Night I Drove Alone” or “Sleep” are too bleak to handle. Teenagers with tough upbringings or who wanted to fit in with their friends understandably latched on and yelled along to “The Summer”. In 2015, Citizen released my favourite album of theirs, Everybody is Going to Heaven, until Life in Your Glass World came out this year, anyway.
Everybody is Going to Heaven saw a young band shed their emo skin and dive into post-hardcore. It’s a stunning effort; while some moments don’t quite work – “Yellow Love” is kinda boring; in a just world, “Silo” would have made the tracklist – most of it clicks on a deep level. “Ring of Chain” remains the best Citizen track in my eyes. As a mewithoutYou fan, the heavy melodies and equally barrelling, free-ranging drums and guitars are reminiscent of Michael Weiss and Rickie Mazzotta on Catch for Us the Foxes.
Then, As You Please was released in 2017. I don’t know if Citizen lost their magic, or I lost interest when some of the intensity was gone. Either way, I wasn’t following the band in the lead up to Life in Your Glass World. It wasn’t until Danielle Chelosky reviewed the album for Stereogum that I felt excited about them again. In her review, she describes the dance-punk vibes, how the album could fit beside Bloc Party circa-Silent Alarm and subsequently hooked me in. As always, Mat Kerekes voice is smooth as butter. Eric Hamm pulls dirty bass lines straight from 2015, and I absolutely love it. Nick Hamm’s guitar is catchy as hell; everything works. The ballads are resonant, while the more upbeat songs are catchy as hell. Citizen can now make you dance, as well as mosh and have a cry in your bedroom. With Life in Your Glass World, you will hear a band that has found greatness.
P.S. Can we have more of “Fight Beat” and “Black and Red”? – Mary Varvaris
While True Love takes a notable stride away from their quaint slowcore beginnings into a more indie folk type of territory, it loses none of Hovvdy’s instantly memorable melodies or simplistic songwriting. On what is probably their most sonically consistent record to date, Charlie Martin and Will Taylor take turns swooning listeners with three minute helpings of southern, more specifically Texas, charm — earnestly crooning singalong melodies to deliver what ultimately feels like a naturally existing piece of art. Perhaps (no, definitely) the most wholesome record of the year. A love letter to romance, to familial bonds, to lifelong friendships, and to showing up for one another. I triple dog dare you to sing along to “Blindsided” without tearing up a little! – Trevor Graham
Of the two Weezer albums released in 2021, I’m a little surprised to see Van Weezer be the one that made our list. But in another sense, I’m not. Van Weezer promised riffs (as evidenced by lead single “The End of the Game”), a notable hair metal influence, and the ever-present mythical promise that this one would sound like Weezer, the blue album everyone knows and loves. Alas, Van Weezer does not sound like The Blue Album (aside from vinyl bonus track “Thrown It All Away”), but that’s okay. Instead, it fuses the band’s modern pop sheen (courtesy of producer Suzy Shinn) with an enjoyable pastiche of 80s imitations, from The Cars (“I Need Some of That”) to an absurd Ozzy Osbourne tribute (“Blue Dream”) and, of course, Van Halen. Some fans may prefer the more subdued and contemplative OK Human, but Van Weezer makes a solid argument for those who feel the band is at their best when they’re simply having fun.
Some contributors have shared their individual best of 2021 lists:
- Jason Tate
- Craig Manning
- Drew Beringer
- Adam Grundy
- Mary Varvaris
- Brett Bodner
- Aaron Mook
- Garrett Lemons
- Trevor Graham
If you’d like to share your best of 2021 list, there’s a thread in our community, or feel free to share it in the comments.
The Nerd Stat Stuff
Our final compiled list was put together using our ranking algorithm. There were 12 contributors and 180 unique albums across all of the lists. In total, 53 albums out of the 180 were on more than one list, with the number one album appearing on 10 of the 12 lists. (And though it comes as no surprise to me…)