50 Best Punk Albums of 2021
Years ending in "1" have always tended to be pivotal years for punk rock. First it was hardcore '81, and then 1991: the year punk broke. 2001 was the year that emo broke and in 2011, the new wave of post-hardcore made its mark. Time will tell how 2021 is best remembered, but it already feels like tons of exciting new trends exploded within punk this year. The fifth wave of emo is officially here. So is New Tone ska. The latest waves of screamo, hardcore, and metalcore have risen from the underground and produced tons of breakthrough records. The mainstream pop punk revival is in full effect. A few veteran bands put out career-high albums this year, but 2021 has largely been about exciting new bands. Punk and its many offshoots are very far from dead.
To wrap up this incredible year for punk, we've put together a list of the 50 best "punk" albums of the year, including hardcore, post-hardcore, emo, screamo, metalcore, ska-punk, pop punk, indie-punk, and some hard-to-define stuff in between, and even with 50 albums, we couldn't touch on all the many great punk-derived albums released in 2021. (We have subgenre-specific lists with more, including screamo, ska, and metalcore, plus 40 great punk EPs, splits, and singles.) Genres are hard to define, and even with the large variety of punk subgenres represented on this list, a few 2021 albums were left off that might be "adjacent" to punk/emo/etc but overall didn't fit the criteria, including the excellent new albums by Foxing, Manchester Orchestra, Laura Stevenson, Angel Du$t, and Illuminati Hotties. Great albums, just not for this list.
Read on for our picks of the 50 best punk albums of 2021, and stay tuned for more BV year-end lists...
Taking Meds' latest album sounds like the '90s punk scene in a blender, with hints of everything from Jawbox to Superchunk to Dinosaur Jr, and they spit their influences back out in a way that just simply rips. This isn't a record you should overthink; it's banger after banger and half these tracks sound like they would've been classics if they came out 25 years ago.
On this debut LP, UK duo Death goals offer up chaotic hardcore with noisy, discordant riffs and screams from Harry Bailey so feral that you can feel the spit landing on you through the microphone. Harry sounds genuinely pissed off, and understandably so -- the album looks at the impact that the rise of the alt-right has had on queer communities, and Harry's response is vivid, violent, and full of dread.
The emo revival of the 2010s initially started as a reaction against the poppier sounds of the genre's 2000s era, but eventually we got albums like The Hotelier's Home, Like Noplace Is There and Pianos Become the Teeth's Keep You that reminded people that you could write big, clean, catchy emo songs and still be a tasteful band. Arm's Length's sophomore EP Everything Nice seems to pick up where those albums left off, and tie things back even more directly to poppier 2000s bands like The Early November and Armor For Sleep. Everything Nice envisions a world where emo-pop and underground emo never diverged, one where atmosphere and experimentation and sugary pop punk could go hand in hand. It's an EP that would've sounded just as at home on Drive-Thru in 2003 as it would have on No Sleep in 2013, and it still sounds remarkable today too.
In true underground emo fashion, Stars Hollow sound like they're always pushing themselves to their limits, trying to play as technical and sing as loud as possible -- even if something's a little out of their range -- and always seeming entirely humble about it. Their musical ambition is evident, but so is their interest in keeping things sounding raw and scrappy. And, though it's not hard to guess some of Stars Hollow's core influences, I Want To Live My Life really does stand out from the ever-crowded emo pack. It's familiar enough to draw you right in, and eccentric enough to keep you coming back for more.
Yes, Save Face's sophomore LP sounds a lot like My Chemical Romance, but underneath the surface-level comparisons (an emo-goes-Queen rock opera with theatrical vocals, Broadway pianos, and more), it's clear that Save Face bring their own flair to this ambitious, widely appealing, spectacularly over-the-top sound. Tyler Povanda has a very distinct voice, and his melodies on this album really stick. And it's become overwhelmingly clear this year that Save Face are the full package. From the music videos to the live show to the art direction, Save Face have built an entire universe around these songs. It's been a while since a young punk band came out looking and sounding like they want to be the biggest band on the planet, but Save Face have done it.
2021 was the year that Travis Barker took control of mainstream rock and found a ton of collaborators who were willing to join him on his quest to bring pop punk back to the charts, and one of the most interesting and unique ones was KennyHoopla. Kenny already had a unique pop/electronic-friendly rock sound of his own before linking up with Travis, and you really get the sense that this album was the product of two strong minds coming together, not just Travis looking for his latest muse. Kenny captures the sugary charm of Y2K-era blink-182, but he also branches out into the moody post-punk of "Silence Is Also An Answer" and the throat-shredding post-hardcore of "Inside of Heaven's Mouth, There Is A Sweet Tooth," and more than any of Travis Barker's other 2021 collabs, Survivor's Guilt lets him go as apeshit behind the kit as he did on blink's best records. Survivor's Guilt isn't just a revival of pop punk's past; it feels like a glimpse into the genre's future.
Often times, the best screamo bands have production that sounds like it was done in their parents' basement but with songwriting explosive enough to bring the entire house down, and that's exactly the vibe of Milwaukee band Snag's sophomore LP Death Doula. The raw, low-budget record is full of soaring, towering, post-rock crescendos and drumming that's busy and propulsive enough to power a factory, reminding you that it's possible to sound like a larger-than-life band off the strength of chemistry, precision, and songwriting alone, without an ounce of studio polish. Topping off the stunning instrumentals are harshly screamed pleas that, like on Snag's first album, are begging you to take climate change seriously. It's an issue whose negative impact has been abundantly clear this year, but Snag don't get preachy about it; they sing about it with the same heart-on-sleeve emotion that's defined emo for decades.
The Best of the Worst frequently get compared to Folly -- a fellow NJ band who fused ska and metalcore -- but, as great as Folly were, the truth is that Better Medicine takes that fusion way further than Folly ever did. On this album, they do more of everything. The ska parts are more ska, the metalcore parts are more metalcore, and they throw in a lot of other stuff too. When Jason Selvaggio and Joe Scala trade vocals, they're heavy and throat-shredding, but when Liz Fackelman comes in, TBOTW sound like an indie-emo band. They've got everything from floor-shaking breakdowns to downstrummed punk choruses to clean ska upstrokes to rich horn arrangements, and it all comes together a lot more seamlessly than it might sound on paper. Better Medicine feels like a revitalization for the ska-core genre, and there wasn't much else in 2021 that sounded like it.
Vientre are a relatively new band from Colombia, but they sound like the best mid 2000s European screamo band that never was. They tap into the vibe of bands like Daïtro and La Quiete, and they play with all the passion and heart that those bands did 15-ish years ago. Estado de Imago, their third album, may not exactly break new ground, but it feels like a breath of fresh air just because Vientre do it so damn well. They've got the apocalyptic screams, the grand post-rocky arrangements, the perfect balance between beauty and aggression -- everything you need for a top tier screamo album.
Remember Sports' fourth album is far and away their best yet. They had already established themselves as staples of the 2010s indie-punk wave, but the once-scrappy band never sounded as razor-sharp and airtight as they do on Like A Stone. They still have the humble, raw charm of their early albums, but these songs feel bigger, better, and catchier than anything else they've released. And really driving these hook-filled songs home is Carmen Perry's expressive, soaring voice. The songs are deeply personal, and when she belts them at the top of her lungs, the emotion is entirely tangible.
Back in the early 2000s, bands like At the Drive In, Glassjaw, and The Blood Brothers helped give birth to an entire generation of post-hardcore bands with flamboyant, theatrical singers -- if you were part of a punk scene, there's a good chance you encountered at least one of them. Philly's Johnny Football Hero sound like they could've been one of those bands if they formed 20 years ago, but they also incorporate much more, from the knotty Midwest emo that predated that era to the lo-fi indie vibes of modern emo. They sound built for basement shows, but their hooks and guitar solos are big enough to fill arenas. Their new EP Complacency induces nostalgia for so many different time periods and vibes and subgenres all at once, that it just can't help but feel innovative.
With elements of both '80s crossover thrash and '90s proto-metalcore, Section H8 sound heavy as fuck, and they use those time-tested sounds as a canvas to paint a picture of what they see happening around them right now in 2021. Even before releasing this debut full-length, Section H8 became favorites of the modern hardcore underground, and their reach is starting to extend beyond the underground too. They caught the attention of Rancid's Tim Armstrong, who called them an "incredible new band" and who lent a vicious guest verse to "Streetsweeper." Tim knows a thing or two about writing punk songs that appeal to the masses without watering down the grit, and I wouldn't be surprised if he sees a little of that in Section H8.
There was a lot of interesting stuff happening within ska in 2021, but if you want an album that just offers up fast, adrenaline-rush-inducing ska-punk in the vein of bands like Assorted Jelly Beans and Link 80, you can't do much better than I Can't Take It Anymore. The New Orleans ska-punk band's fourth album (and first to be co-released by Bad Time Records) is their best-produced, most musically dynamic, and most lyrically personal yet. It sounds like a fun, bright record, but underneath the catchy exterior are songs that deal with addiction and making powerful changes within your community. It's a reminder that music can be deep and serious and still be fun as hell to listen to.
Meet Me @ The Altar sound like they're ready to take over the world. They embrace the arena-sized pop punk that (their current label) Fueled by Ramen put out in the mid 2000s, chuggy easycore, and the more atmospheric approach of a lot of modern emo/punk, and they fuse it all into something that sounds larger than life. Edith Johnson sings every song like she's playing a packed arena and singing to the people in the nosebleeds, and the rest of the band sound like they're constantly trying to make the walls shake. The entire Model Citizen EP is so loudly and unabashedly poppy that it might ruffle the feathers of some punk purists, but their loss -- this is some of the most genuine, energizing music released all year.
UK mathcore trio Pupil Slicer recently did a genuinely killer cover of Converge's Jane Doe opener "Concubine," a song that takes some serious chops to cover, let alone do anything interesting with that Converge didn't already do. That should give you an idea of what kind of band Pupil Slicer are, and if that piques your interest, you need Mirrors in your life. As chaotic as it is devastating, it hearkens back to Jane Doe era metalcore and mathcore without ever feeling like a retread. It's a dark, bleak album musically and lyrically -- with hints of black and death metal and lyrical references to abuse, depression, and oppression -- but it's also crystal clear. When you're this technically proficient and have this much to say, that's the way it should be.
Pick this up on transparent pink or red/black swirl vinyl here.
Sincere Engineer exist in the same lineage of Chicago punk bands as The Lawrence Arms and Alkaline Trio, and their sophomore LP Bless My Psyche takes the sounds of those bands' late '90s / early 2000s era and brings them roaring into the 2020s in a way that feels incredibly fresh. Deanna Belos has a versatile voice that can go from roared hooks to a folky singer/songwriter hum, and both Deanna and the rest of Sincere Engineer play with the confidence and precision of seasoned vets. This type of energy just can't be faked.
For a good old, ass-kicking, straight-up hardcore record, look no further than Against All Odds. DARE rely on a lot of familiar tricks, and they don't necessarily break much ground, but they've got that feeling that every great hardcore record has. Listening to this record feels like that first time you found yourself in the pit of a life-changing hardcore show, and I won't be surprised if one day kids talk about DARE shows like that -- they probably already do. The band is super tight, and the crisp, clear production makes them sound bigger and better than ever without dampening their attack. From straightedge anthems ("Different Method") to songs that tackle racial injustice ("All I See") to more personal tracks, Against All Odds is a record that's as serious as it is fun. It captures an array of human emotions, like any great hardcore record should.
Pick this up on transparent yellow vinyl.
On their sophomore album Proof, Richmond's Downhaul offer up an expansive, atmospheric blend of emo, post-rock, and Americana that would fit in nicely next to Restorations or Goodness-era Hotelier, but -- comparisons aside -- Proof is so entrancing because of how much Downhaul stand out from other bands. That's thanks in large part to singer Gordon Philips, who has a nasally, conversational delivery that doesn't really sound like anyone else. Like a lot of atypical singers (Conor Oberst, Jeff Mangum, etc), Gordon's voice can seem jarring at first if you're not used to it, but it quickly becomes the thing you like most. And it's not just Gordon's timbre that makes Proof such a triumph; it's also the songwriting, which is as lyrically heartfelt as it is melodically infectious.
The current pop punk revival often centers on the Travis Barker-affiliated acts that sound like they could've dominated TRL in the Y2K era, but if you want something with a little more edge, you need Action/Adventure in your life. Their Pure Noise debut Pulling Focus offers up the kind of glossy yet hardcore-informed pop punk that dominated Drive-Thru Records in the early 2000s and bands like The Wonder Years and The Story So Far in the early 2010s, and Action/Adventure are one of the best new bands in that realm that I've heard in years. They scratch all the right itches -- they're impossibly tight, every song is a pit-starter, and the hooks are sugar-sweet -- and they also avoid lyrical pop punk clichés in favor of anti-racist anthems like "Barricades," which has quickly become the band's signature song. Even the best pop punk bands are often juvenile; Action/Adventure prove that the genre's even better when you inspire a little growth.
For Nobody, Nowhere is Raccoon City's first album in seven years, but it's also the first with the Australian band's slightly different band name and lineup, so it's more of a new beginning than a comeback. The album is a huge step up from 2014's Nightlife, incorporating a ton of different sounds from all across the post-hardcore spectrum, from harsh screamo to anthemic clean-sung emo, from post-rocky climaxes to sludgy breakdowns. It's some of the heaviest, prettiest, and catchiest music released in this realm all year, and -- at least in America -- some of the most underrated too. If you've been clamoring for a new Thursday or Pianos Become the Teeth record and you haven't heard this, change that now.
Flying Raccoon Suit have releases dating back to 2012, but Afterglow feels like their grand introduction. It solidifies FRS as one of the most inventive bands in the current ska scene, mixing ska with punk, metal, hardcore, indie rock, jazz, surf rock, Klezmer, and more, and with two lead singers (Jessica Jeansonne and Andrew Heaton), they cover almost as much musical ground vocally as they do instrumentally. Even with all that going on, Flying Raccoon Suit never bite off more than they can chew and they always come out with catchy, accessible songs. Sometimes they sound like they could've been the biggest band of 1997 ("Red Herring"), but more often than not, they're pushing ska forward, proving that the genre still has so much more to say.
Willow Smith has experimented with a ton of different styles of music since releasing her breakthrough single as a 10-year-old, and lately I feel EVERYTHING tackles her latest conquest: punk rock. She gets help from pop punk giants Travis Barker (on three songs) and Avril Lavigne and modern-day garage punks Cherry Glazerr, but it's clear that the vision is all Willow's. Travis Barker's influence on pop punk has resulted in a whole lot of modern songs that sound like blink-182, but Willow never falls into that. Even the Barker-aided songs sound like no other artist, and the album also experiments with grunge, rap rock, and more. There are also a few dream pop songs and the hip hop-infused art pop of "Xtra" (ft. Tierra Whack), and those moments fit right in with the heavier stuff. It's not all punk the genre, but it's a whole lot more nonconformist than "actual" punk bands.
Pick this up on red vinyl.
There's been a lot of innovation within hardcore this year, and even with all these new trails being blazed, there really isn't anyone who sounds like Thirdface. Instrumentally, it's all over the place, from blasts of grindy/powerviolence-y fury to rock riffage to psychedelic atmosphere to straightup hardcore, and Kathryn Edwards tops it all off with some of the most venomous screaming put to tape in 2021. She sounds pissed off, and she is; these songs take on racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice, and the way they plague both the world at large and smaller, individual communities. This record is a rallying cry, a call to arms, and if you're tired of the status quo, it'll be some of the most inspiring music you hear this year.
In just 15 and a half minutes, Santa Cruz's Scowl have offered up one of the most effective and memorable hardcore debut LPs of 2021. Kat Moss has one of the most distinct barks I've heard from a new hardcore band in a while, and she releases all that bottled-up rage to address personal and political hardships, from getting revenge on an abuser to dealing with a troubled childhood to taking on the mass injustice in America. Underneath her screams, the rest of the band dishes out rippin' power chords that owe more to classic punk than to modern hardcore, and Scowl break from their usual formula on "Seeds To Sow," a melodic song that proves Scowl are very capable of defying their genre. It leaves you wondering what other tricks Scowl might have up their sleeves on LP2.
Jail Socks' debut LP rolls the past 25 years of emo and pop punk into one concise 11-song album, and it shoots it all back out like a bottle rocket. You could picture this album sounding just as at home on Drive-Thru in 2001 as it would have on Run For Cover in 2011, and it fits in perfectly on leading DIY emo label Counter Intuitive in 2021 too. It touches on so many different thrills, from arena-sized pop punk to basement-dwelling Midwest emo, from throat-shredding melodic hardcore to gentle balladry and acoustic emo, and Jail Socks have the enduring, unforgettable songs to rival many of the bands that paved the way for them. They're also super tight, with riffs and fills and transitions that sound almost inhuman. It's an album that sounds like it could be huge with the right push, and I want to live in a world where it is.
Calyx spent the past six years making a name for themselves within Pittsburgh's DIY punk scene, and this year they finally followed their two EPs and single with their first full-length, Stay Gone, and to say it was worth the wait would be an understatement. As good as their past releases were, this bests any of them by a mile. It's their best-produced recording yet (with production by The Superweaks' Evan Bernard), and the band sound tighter and louder and hit harder than they ever have. The songs bring me back to the early days of bands like Hop Along and Swearin', and it's some of the best stuff in that realm that I've heard in a while. Guitarist/vocalist Caitlin Bender sounds like a force of nature -- powerful and commanding but still with a singer/songwriter-style intimacy -- and these are by far the catchiest, most memorable songs she and the band have written yet. Adding to her towering voice is the post-hardcore-fueled backing vocals by bassist Jon Ahn, and the neck-snapping snare hits of drummer Garrett Cassidy give this album its beating heart. Calyx are a true power trio, where everyone brings something crucial to the table, and the clear-but-unpolished production makes it obvious that they really gel with each other.
2021 saw the emergence of post-everything emo band Home Is Where, and if you want more where that came from, the latest EP from Hey, ily! is not to miss. Internet Breath doesn't actually sound anything like Home Is Where, but both bands share a knack for fearless innovation in a totally modern, 2020s way. Internet Breath connects the dots between lo-fi bedroom synthpop, emo-punk, harsh screamo, and more, and the results are way more seamless than it ever could have sounded on paper. Picture a cross between the first Hellogoodbye EP and the first Passion Pit EP, but with some parts that sound like Orchid and some parts that sound like lo-fi beats to relax/study to, and that might give you kind of an idea. Internet Breath exists just on the verge of being a little too ridiculous, but it never actually is. And aside from all the genre experiments, Caleb is just a great songwriter. If you like catchy, weird emo songs, these are some of the best released all year.
Update: A previous version of this blurb stated that Caleb from Hey, ily! is in Home Is Where's live band, which is no longer the case.
The latest screamo/post-hardcore wave continues to grow, and even with great new bands in this realm popping up left and right, Dreamwell's sophomore LP Modern Grotesque emerged as one of the genre's brightest gems in recent memory. With a mix of passionate screams, talk-singing, and lush clean vocals over post-rock-infused instrumentals, it recalls turn-of-the-2010s era greats like La Dispute and Pianos Become the Teeth, and it feels just as triumphant as those bands' breakthrough records did back then. It also does a lot of things those bands didn't do, from shoegazy guitars to metalcore riffs, and it's got powerful, personal lyrics that make it too heart-wrenching to ever feel overly indebted to its influences. When lead vocalist wails "I must have taken part in the violence/I can't have only been a victim" on "Plague Father; Vermin Son," or shrieks "If love can be a sin, then may all of man be turned into a mountain of salt!" on "You Dreamt of Me. I Dreamt of a Mountain of Salt," you feel it in your bones.
I Won't Care How You Remember Me is Tigers Jaw's sixth album, but it feels like a new beginning. After 3/5 of the classic lineup left, remaining members Ben Walsh and Brianna Collins recorded 2017's Spin as a duo, and the album proved Tigers Jaw could begin a new chapter of their career after their lineup took such a huge hit, but it largely feels like a transitional record. I Won't Care How You Remember Me is the full fresh start that Tigers Jaw needed. It's Ben and Brianna's first album recorded with their new rhythm section of drummer Teddy Roberts and bassist Colin Gorman, who they'd been playing live with for years leading up to this release, and they've developed into a tight four-piece band, which this album makes very, very clear. The four of them feed off of each other in incredibly natural ways, and Teddy's razor-sharp drumming is this album's secret sauce. Made with longtime producer Will Yip, it's by far the band's biggest, cleanest sounding album -- but still in a way that feels distinctly Tigers Jaw -- and these are some of the band's most immediate songs yet. Ben and Brianna co-front the band now, and they rival each other as singers and songwriters the way Ben and former co-lead-singer Adam McIlwee used to. With each passing song, it sounds like they're challenging each other to get better and better.
With a sound that pulls from hardcore, powerviolence, grindcore, and more, Regional Justice Center have become one of the most compelling punk/metal hybrids around, and their sophomore LP Crime and Punishment is their strongest release yet. It sounds absolutely hellish and devastating, but it's also the most dynamic music RJC have ever made and there's an underlying sense of tunefulness to all the filth. (Main member Ian Shelton claims it's just as influenced by The Beatles as it is by bands like Hatred Surge and Napalm Death.) It moves between whiplash-inducing sonic assault, slowed-down sludge, and danceable grooves, and Ian Shelton's screams may sound menacing, but his words are often poetic and personal. It's aggressive music, but the emotions conveyed are more pensive than combative.
Pick this up on clear/orange splatter vinyl.
Since forming as a side project in 2014, Fiddlehead have become vocalist Pat Flynn's most widely beloved band since Have Heart -- and his first to cross over outside of the hardcore scene -- and it's almost all thanks to their 2021 sophomore album Between The Richness. The album pulls from an array of '90s indie rock, emo, and post-hardcore influences (Fugazi, Samiam, Archers of Loaf, etc), and Fiddlehead always fall somewhere in the middle of all that, never fitting neatly into any of the three categories. Pat still brings the energy he brought to his hardcore bands, but he's focused on melody and practices restraint in a way that would've been out of place on a Have Heart record. He sounds seasoned in his delivery, and his words have a wisdom to them too. The album was inspired both by his son's birth and his father's passing, and it looks at both life and death through the lens of someone who's spent a lot of time thinking about both. On this album, Fiddlehead feel like the Fugazi to Have Heart's Minor Threat, the Quicksand to their Gorilla Biscuits -- it's a major evolution by a beloved hardcore musician who knows it's time for a change.
Pick this up on "blue & clear moon phase" vinyl.
When Quicksand reunited and ended a 22-year rap between albums with Interiors, it felt like the ideal reunion album, one that recalled the sound of their '90s classics and still found ways to push the band forward. It's only now, after hearing its followup Distant Populations, that Interiors feels like a rough draft. Interiors found Quicksand shaking off the rust and rediscovering their chemistry after two decades without new music, and now that they've done that, Distant Populations allowed them to really take Quicksand to a new level. Songs like the Radiohead-esque "Brushed," the shoegazy "Missile Command," and the psychedelic "Phase 90" expand the band's sonic palette in a way that still feels like Quicksand, while headbangers like "Lightning Field," "Colossus," and "EMDR" put a fresh spin on the classic Quicksand sound. Distant Populations has everything, from what you want Quicksand to do to what you never expected from them. I know saying this might be sacrilegious to some, but it could very well be the best thing they've ever done.
Pick up a black vinyl copy.
After four years of promising EPs/splits/demos, Portland metalcore band Dying Wish finally released their debut album, and it raises the bar for an already-great band. Like their friends in Knocked Loose (whose Bryan Garris appears on this album and who featured Dying Wish vocalist Emma Boster on their 2019 album A Different Shade of Blue), Dying Wish have absorbed the sounds of all of metalcore's different waves, and they pick their favorite parts and throw out the rest, coming out with an album that feels like a breath of fresh air for the genre. Their songs are in touch with metalcore's hardcore punk roots, but they also deliver some of the catchiest melodic metalcore riffs this side of Poison The Well. When Emma Boster switches to clean singing, Dying Wish sound catchy enough to compete with the current pop punk revival, and when she screams, she's one of the most vicious vocalists in the genre. And with her rage always being pointed at meaningful topics (like gender, racial, sexual, and environmental injustice), Dying Wish only sound more crucial.
Since the mid '90s, emo has favored scrappy, shambolic bands with a love of noodly guitars and off-kilter rhythms, and Origami Angel definitely fall within that lineage. But look a little closer at their new double album GAMI GANG, and you'll find a band who are overflowing with ideas beneath that scrappy exterior. Origami Angel have just two members, and vocalist Ryland Heagy recorded and produced the whole 20-song album in his bedroom, which presumably contributed to the charmingly raw vibe. And Origami Angel used this humble home recording to deliver everything from Midwest emo noodling to classic rock shredding to power pop hooks to acoustic passages to trap beats to bossa nova to easycore breakdowns, and that doesn't even cover all of it. They've got a loud, energetic, excited sound throughout, like they're playing what could be their last show ever, and you get the sense that that show would be in a basement but Origami Angel would treat it like Madison Square Garden. Plenty of bands have adapted sounds from the punk underground to translate in an arena rock setting; Origami Angel seem intent on doing the exact opposite.
Baltimore's Pinkshift emerged as one of 2020's most vital new punk bands off the strength of just a few songs, and they really made good on that promise in 2021, winning over crowds as an opener on Mannequin Pussy's tour (which they'll presumably do again in 2022 with PUP) and with the release of their debut EP Saccharine, which compiled their four 2020 songs with a revved-up re-recording of their 2019 demo song "Mars." The influence of major 2000s melodic punk bands like Paramore and My Chemical Romance shine through loud and clear, and Pinkshift reshape those influences into something that sounds urgent and fresh within the context of today's DIY indie-punk scene. The songs all feel like they could be hits, and best of all, Pinkshift rip. Ashrita Kumar has a soaring, sneering voice that allows her to turn these catchy songs into punk anthems, the rhythm section is airtight, and the secret weapon just might be guitarist Paul Vallejo, whose shredding solos are just as arena-sized and heroic as Ashrita's choruses.
It's hard to talk about Kaonashi without mentioning Coheed & Cambria, who the band members once called "the glue that binds us all together" and who gets namedropped on their 2021 sophomore album Dear Lemon House, You Ruined Me: Senior Year, but Kaonashi embrace the influence of their heroes on a conceptual level, not just by copying their style. Coheed infiltrated the post-hardcore world with ambitious concept albums (and an accompanying comic book series) that told a cohesive story throughout most of their discography, and Kaonashi are on their way to doing the same. Dear Lemon House continues the story of Jamie, the same androgynously named lead character of 2018's Why Did You Do It?, and Jamie's story touches on high school bullying, an abusive father, mental health, gender, sexuality, race, and more -- it's an album that anyone who's gone through any kind of struggle can find something to relate to. It's also a truly insane sounding album that's musically all over the place. Peter Rono's frantic speak-shouting still sounds like no one else in the game, and much more so than on Kaonashi's last album, those shouts are contrasted by gleaming clean-sung hooks that give Lemon House a more accessible side without succumbing to clichés. As Peter shouts his head off, the rest of the band churn out progressive post-hardcore structures that constantly shift shape and pull from a slew of different subgenres, from riffy metal to dizzying mathcore to acoustic singer/songwriter material. The album is a lot to take in, and sometimes it can seem intimidating to commit to, but when you do, you're taken on a vast journey that's always worth it.
When melodic metalcore exploded in the early 2000s, it was often tied right in with emo-pop, but Wristmeetrazor imagine a much darker, gothier version of that genre. Their sophomore LP Replica of a Strange Love is full of infectious riffs that sound like the best parts of the Trustkill/Ferret Records era, but their soaring hooks and creepy industrial sections bring to mind White Pony era Deftones and Downward Spiral era Nine Inch Nails. The ingredients are all familiar, but rarely combined like this, and it's a testament to Wristmeetrazor's power that they're able to offer up such time-tested thrills in a way that genuinely feels innovative. Matching the darkness of the music is that of frontman Justin Fornof's lyrics, which pull equally from personal experience and classical philosophy and use vivid poetic imagery to tap into the depths of human emotion. On all levels, from the bone-crushing breakdowns to the lyrical melodrama, this album is intense.
Pick this up on "clear w/ arctic pearl, frost bite blue & onyx" splatter vinyl here.
Getting more accessible after a breakthrough is a common path, but after become leaders of metalcore's current wave with 2019's A Different Shade of Blue, Knocked Loose have only gotten heavier and weirder. A Tear in the Fabric of Life, their new EP/short film, further explores the death metal influences that poked through on Blue, and Knocked Loose have figured out how to fuse death metal and metalcore in a way that doesn't sound like "deathcore." They pull from death metal's murky atmosphere and dissonant riffage, and they meld those things seamlessly with the crisp metalcore attack they've been perfecting since day one. Backing vocalist Isaac Hale and guest vocalist Matt King (of Portrayal of Guilt) bring the subterranean filth, and frontman Bryan Garris contrasts it with the piercing, higher-pitched shriek that's made him one of metalcore's most distinct frontmen. This all makes A Tear in the Fabric of Life Knocked Loose's most aggressive release to date, but it's their most experimental too, with industrial-tinged passages and a creepy Beach Boys sample that suggest Knocked Loose have ambitions beyond being one of the heaviest bands on the planet. They aim to be one of the most artistic too.
Pick up a black vinyl copy.
For such a long-running, multi-faceted genre like ska, it's understandable that the fanbase often splits into different factions of people who prefer certain subgenres or eras or regions. The walls between those factions deserve to be broken down, and if there's one album that really broke down those walls this year, it's Catbite's Nice One. The Philly band's sophomore LP bridges the gap between traditional Jamaican ska and rocksteady, 2 Tone, and third wave ska-punk without ever fitting too neatly into any of those categories. They also infuse their ska with the gritty swagger of garage rock, the infectious melodies of power pop, the modest production of the current DIY scene, and -- on the album's cover of Selena's "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" -- Latin pop, as a way of honoring singer Brittany Luna's Latinx heritage and also as a way of bridging the gap between the Spanish-language ska scene in Mexico, Southern Los Angeles, and South America with the English-language ska scene that has historically dominated the US mainstream. This album is all about bridging gaps, and it does so with some of the catchiest songs released in 2021 by any band. Regardless of what kind of ska you like, or if you even like ska at all, you can't deny how sticky these hooks are.
If we were giving out superlatives for 2021 releases, ULTRAPOP just might win loudest album. Layering guitars in the studio to achieve a bigger sound is nothing new, but this eight (and sometimes nine) piece band have four guitarists to start, and once you add Clark Huge's distorted synths and the batshit drumming of rotating drummers Urian Hackney and Ben Koller, you get left with a sensory overload racket that makes it sound like your speakers are about to explode. I can't think of another 2021 album like it, especially within the realm of punk, a genre that The Armed are rooted in but defy at every turn (they prefer to be called "anti-punk" and also argue that the concept of subgenre is "almost the antithesis of vitality in art"). Sometimes the album veers into synthpop territory; other times it almost passes as black metal. It's all about reaching the extremes on polar opposite ends of the rock/pop music spectrum, and it does so with enough energy to fuel a jet plane.
Pick this up on orange galaxy vinyl.
A lot of emo bands have been called "jazzy" over the years, but I'm not sure I can think of an album that's real-deal jazz and real-deal emo the way Really From's self-titled LP is. Remove the vocals, and this is straight-up one of the best jazz albums of the year; put them back in, and it becomes obvious why they get the E-word thrown at them too. Really From started out as part of the "emo revival" of the early 2010s, but this new album is too innovative to be called a revival of any genre; it's some of the most experimental pop music released in 2021. And the genre-defying instrumentals are matched by powerful lyricism, with moments that are vivid and poetic as well as moments that discuss culture and identity in sharp, direct ways. The cultural commentary it provides is as deep and multi-faceted as the music itself.
The metalcore revival is in full swing, and there's no question that SeeYouSpaceCowboy revive a ton of sounds from the early/mid 2000s -- from straight-up metalcore to sass, screamo, emo-pop, post-hardcore and beyond -- but nobody back then ever really sounded like SeeYouSpaceCowboy and nobody now does either. They use familiar tricks in unexpected ways; from harsh screams to clean-sung hooks, shimmering clean guitars to bludgeoning chugs, conventional song structure to chaos, SeeYouSpaceCowboy do it all, and you never really know when something's gonna come in and what they're gonna do next. On their best album yet, The Romance of Affliction, the band sounds tighter than ever, and Connie Sgarbossa's lyrics are at their most devastating. She wrote much of the album about dealing with addiction, and shortly after finishing the album, she suffered a near-fatal overdose. The album captures Connie at a very low point of her life, and it's a brutally honest telling of what she was going through. It's deeply personal, it's as real as it gets, and it's no surprise that people have swiftly latched onto it.
Pick this up on limited splatter vinyl.
Ska is inherently fun, upbeat music, but it's also music with a long history of fighting injustice, and Ordinary Life brings all of these ideas flying into the future. It's singer Reade Wolcott's first album since coming out as a trans woman, and the album tells her coming out story. It's most explicit on "Boys Will Be Girls," a protest anthem that points a middle finger at transphobia, but Ordinary Life is less often protest music in the traditional sense, and more in the sense that Reade is being entirely open with herself -- whether it's to discuss gender dysphoria, mental health struggles, or romantic anxiety -- regardless of what anyone else would say or think. It's a deeply personal album, but Reade sings about her life in a way where you can project your own struggles onto her songs. If you're going through any of the stuff Reade sings about on this album, Ordinary Life feels like a place to find solace when the rest of the world isn't. It's also just as forward-thinking musically as it is lyrically. Ordinary Life can accurately be called a "ska-punk" album, but it doesn't sound like anything that came out during the genre's '90s boom. It mixes a variety of different styles of ska with the sounds of today's indie-punk, emo, and DIY bands. If you're not sure about ska, but you're into bands like PUP, Charly Bliss, and Illuminati Hotties, you'll probably find that Ordinary Life feels more familiar than you might think. Artists (including We Are The Union member Jeremy Hunter aka Skatune Network) have been chipping at the wall between ska and indie/punk/emo for a few years now, and Ordinary Life just might be the album to finally knock the whole thing down.
Not only did Home Is Where go viral for making a guide to fifth wave emo, they also put out an emo album so fresh and unique that it could only mark the dawn of a new era for the genre. I Became Birds only has six songs, and you can't judge the whole thing by listening to just one of them. There are songs that are indebted to Neutral Milk Hotel, noodly Midwest emo, harsh screamo, and one that reminds me of the communal, post-rocky sounds of early TWIABP ("Sewn Together from the Membrane of the Great Sea Cucumber"), and Home Is Where often make these sounds cross paths in interesting, unexpected ways. If any of it seems jarring at first, it's only because the most innovative ideas often do.
Portrayal of Guilt's mix of screamo, hardcore, black metal, death metal, sludge, and noise became more fluid than ever on this year's masterful We Are Always Alone, an album that's less "multi-genre" and more establishing a genre of its own. It's by far the catchiest and most accessible thing they've ever done (to the extent of which Portrayal of Guilt can accurately be called "catchy" or "accessible"), but it also frequently finds them at their heaviest and most abrasive. It's their most sprawling album, but they condense the sprawl into a lean album, covering more ground in 26 minutes than some bands do in an hour. And with every track flowing directly into the next without pause, it only feels more towering.
Later in 2021, Portrayal of Guilt released a much different album, CHRISTFUCKER, their first release for Run For Cover. If We Are Always Alone is PoG's "catchiest" album yet, then CHRISTFUCKER is definitely their most abrasive (despite being on a bigger, non-hardcore label and featuring their most high-profile guest vocalist to date: Touche Amore's Jeremy Bolm). It's just as genre-fluid as its predecessor, but it leans more heavily on their goth/noise side than anything else they've put out. (It was produced by Ben Greenberg of PoG's recent tourmates Uniform, who themselves are goth/noise masters.) Two albums in one year can sometimes feel like a lot to take in, but Portrayal of Guilt pulled it off by putting out two albums that are so different from each other. The two albums push the band in opposite directions, and together, they remind you that this band's musical boundaries are limitless.
Pick up color vinyl copies of both Portrayal of Guilt albums.
Things have changed a lot since The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die helped usher in the "emo revival" in the early 2010s but TWIABP weren't going to let the world pass them by. Instead of catering to current trends or rehashing the sounds of their past material, TWIABP released Illusory Walls, a fusion of post-hardcore, post-rock, art rock, and more that doesn't sound like any other album in recent memory. It's the band's darkest, heaviest, most expansive album yet, and guitarist Chris Teti has taken on a thrillingly complex lead guitar style that sounds like a cross between Cave In's Jupiter and early Circa Survive. Like those bands, TWIABP have figured out how to weave those intricate guitar parts (and Steven Buttery's beastly drumming) into accessible songs without overshadowing the vocals. Even if you don't care at all about what's going on instrumentally, David Bello and Katie Dvorak's dual lead vocals make Illusory Walls one of the most welcoming and enduring rock albums of the year. It's also an album that, though filled with memorable individual songs, becomes greater than the sum of its parts when played from start to finish. It ends with the two longest songs in TWIABP's discography -- the 15-minute "Infinite Josh" and the 20-minute "Fewer Afraid" -- and they never feel long because they ebb and flow as naturally as the album's first nine songs combined. It feels less like 11 songs and more like three or four movements; everything is on a forward trajectory, pushing you along until the very end. Even the best long albums/songs can be intimidating but Illusory Walls never is; as soon as opener "Afraid to Die" kicks in, you remember that the end payoff is always worth it.
Pick this up on clear vinyl.
As far as underground screamo goes, For Your Health and Shin Guard's 2019 split Death of Spring is basically a modern classic. It helped introduce the world to For Your Health, but it couldn't have prepared anyone for FYH's debut album In Spite Of, which goes far beyond anything they did on Death of Spring. They aren't even really a screamo band anymore; In Spite Of is a genre-defying album that pulls from the grindy chaos of The Locust and Daughters, the shapeshifting progressive hardcore of Fear Before the March of Flames, the theatrical post-hardcore of At the Drive In, and the sugary emo-pop of My Chemical Romance. It goes from its hookiest moments to its most abrasive moments at the drop of a hat, and it never stays in one place for long. In Spite Of is a whirlwind of harsh screams, soaring clean vocals, tech-y guitars, and busy drums, and it's all topped off by Hayden Rodriguez's verbose poetry, which ranges from observant and introspective to scathingly political. It feels like a highlight reel of 2000s post-hardcore, from its most caustic underground bands to its catchiest mainstream bands, and For Your Health connect the dots in ways that no one back then ever really did.
Pick this up on limited clear/red "butterfly" vinyl.
With Turnstile bringing a lot more attention to hardcore this year, it feels like the perfect time for a bright, new hardcore band to come along and push the genre to exciting new places, and that band is One Step Closer. This Place You Know is the young Wilkes-Barre, PA band's debut full-length, following two EPs (including 2019's very good From Me to You on Triple B Records), and it has the range, confidence, and precision of a band who's been around for twice as long. Vocalist Ryan Savitski has a knack for turning small town dread and other personal battles into impassioned scream-sung hooks, and he manages to have the world-weary wisdom of a seasoned vet and the hunger of a rising artist all at once. All the while, the rest of One Step Closer paint a musical backdrop that owes as much to pummeling hardcore as it does to the prettier, knottier sounds of '90s emo. The album is peppered with clean guitars, clean vocals, and twinkling piano, but these aren't the main draw; these are minor embellishments that only make the heavier parts hit even harder. (The exception being "Hereafter," which proves OSC can write genuinely gorgeous songs if they feel like it.) OSC clearly draw upon a long lineage of melodic hardcore bands, but they've already figured out how to honor those influences without sounding overly indebted to them. The emotion and the melodies they convey set them apart from even some of the genre's most seminal bands.
Pick this up on orange galaxy vinyl.
20 years into their career, Every Time I Die have made their most vast, ambitious, and quite possibly best album to date. That's an admittedly big claim to make for a band who helped define an entire wave of metalcore with classics like Hot Damn! and Gutter Phenomenon, but as many of their peers have broken up, plateaued, or faded away, Every Time I Die have kept pushing themselves to get even better. With 16 songs in over 50 minutes, Radical is ETID's longest album, and it earns its running time by offering up the most musically diverse collection of songs this band has ever put out. It has some of the heaviest, most caustic moments of this band's career ("Sly," "A Colossal Wreck," "All This and War"), and it's also full of moments that transcend Every Time I Die's metalcore roots: "Post-Boredom" is one of the catchiest rock songs of the year, "Desperate Pleasures" is as brooding as Swans, and the Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra-featuring "Thing with Feathers" is a clean, soaring song and perhaps the most gorgeous thing ETID have ever written. Matching the musical ambition are some of Keith Buckley's most incisive lyrics, from songs that take on the injustices of the world at large ("Planet Shit") to songs that are more personal, like the aforementioned "Thing with Feathers," a poetic, heart-wrenching ode to Keith's late sister. It has all the makings of a classic, and it feels as definitive of today's metalcore scene as ETID's early records did in the 2000s.
2021 produced so many great records that fall under the punk umbrella, but one towered above the rest: Turnstile's Glow On. With this album, Turnstile have made an exciting, innovative record that invites new listeners into the punk and hardcore community, all while staying loyal to -- and boosting -- the scene that birthed them. The music on this album is proof that it's still possible to do entirely new things within the genre. Without abandoning Turnstile's hardcore roots, Glow On incorporates everything from R&B hooks to go-go drums to dream pop atmosphere to thrash solos. It's a record that frequently sounds like it shouldn't work, yet somehow, everything is always in its right place. It's one of the catchiest, weirdest, most unique, and most exhilarating records released this year in any genre of music. It makes me think of records like Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come, AFI's Sing the Sorrow, and Fucked Up's David Comes to Life -- all albums from bands with hardcore roots who pushed the genre into more ambitious, more experimental, and/or more pop-friendly territory -- but I'd even argue it succeeds in ways those albums didn't. Every song hits, no two songs sound alike, and despite being overstuffed with ideas, the entire album feels concise. But more importantly than any of this, the songs are just a total blast to listen to. The rhythms rush through your veins, the hooks are damn near impossible to get out of your head, the guitar riffs and drum fills are as satisfying as they come. "If it makes you feel alive/Well, then I'm happy I provide," Brendan Yates shouts on the chorus of album standout "Blackout." And it does, every time.