BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2021
It's been a whirlwind year, one that started as a continuation of 2020's lockdown, and then saw the triumphant return of live music, and now is ending like it began, with a mass cancellation of live shows. (Hopefully that passes soon!) Throughout it all, though, we were still treated to tons of great new music. It's hard to narrow down all the albums we loved this year, but we whittled a list down to 50, which spans over a dozen different genres of music, from breakthrough debut albums to career-high peaks from veteran artists and plenty of the in-between.
Narrowing the list down to 50 meant leaving off a lot of our faves, but you can find even more albums we loved from this year in our lists of punk/hardcore/emo/etc albums and EPs, screamo, ska, metalcore, jazz, and rap, as well as our Indie Basement list and Indie Basement's best reissues, box sets, and compilations, and our list of classic rock reissues. Plus, we've included a few honorable mentions from our individual staff members below.
We'd also like to give a big thank you to all the BrooklynVegan readers, and we look forward to seeing you all in 2022. Read on for our list...
With a wall of guitars that connect the dots between shoegaze and J Mascis' guitar heroism, and the yearning, folky vocals of singer/guitarist Karly Hartzman, Wednesday have written an excellent indie rock album that checks so many boxes. It's warm and earthy, but it's also loud and distorted and really rocks. It's familiar, nostalgic, even comforting, but Wednesday know how to shake things up too.
Madi Diaz enters the pantheon of writers of great break-up albums with History of a Feeling. Her first full length record in seven years, it's a departure from her previous forays into electro-pop, sticking mostly to spare, rootsy folk, for her most hard-hitting music yet. The tumult of feelings on display throughout these songs -- rage, tenderness, anguish, and regret -- are wrapped in addictive melodies, punctuated by gorgeous harmonies, and delivered with vulnerable, devastating honesty. Coupled with searing lyrical turns, like the bitter kiss off on "Think of Me" -- "I hope you fuck her with your eyes closed and think of me" that like the album, sticks with you long after listening.
Now! (in a minute), the 2018 debut album by duo audiobooks (aka David Wrench and Evangeline Ling), was one of the weirdest, most wonderful surprises of that year, a record that actively defied categorization. The album was such a rare bird, it had "One-Off" written all over it. But Wrench and Ling have done it again, and somehow Astro Tough is both even further out there and more approachable than their debut. Wrench drops heavy prog and psych, post-punk, spoken word, performance art, disco, techno, dub reggae, '60s pop, '70s glam and most of The Fall's catalog into a blender while Ling binds it via a bravura vocal performance that should really get her some voiceover work. It may still be too unpidgeonholable for many but those who like their pop cut with a giant splash of eccentrism and unbridled joy, audiobooks are the genuine weirdo geniuses you're looking for.
It's been 15 years since the last Arab Strap album, but Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton pick right back up where they left off on As Days Get Dark. That's not exactly right, time has definitely passed but their camera is still pointed in the same place, soaking in the seedy, sordid and carnal. "I don't give a fuck about the past, or glory days gone by," Aidan Moffat whispers in that breathy baritone brogue of his, "All I care about right now is that wee mole inside your thigh." The dark, sensuous arrangements of these songs are as vivid as the lyrical portraits of these lonely, sad, lusty characters that populate them, making for one of Arab Strap's best-ever albums.
Blurring the lines between anthemic grunge, towering sludge metal, and haunting goth, King Woman's sophomore album is her best release yet and one of the year's most inviting heavy rock albums. The sludge riffage could perk up the ears of even the most extreme metalhead, and these massive choruses sound like they would've blown up on '90s rock radio. Celestial Blues makes you yearn for the days when the mainstream cared about loud rock bands, and the urgency in Kris Esfandiari's delivery, her heartfelt melodies, and Deafheaven collaborator Jack Shirley's modern production make for a vital, impassioned album that stands tall next to the greats of that era.
A lot of protest music criticizes an unjust past, some of it hopes for a better future; Damon Locks wants to know "what happens NOW?" He and his Black Monument Ensemble (which includes Angel Bat Dawid, Ben LaMar Gay, Dana Hall, Arif Smith, and a six-piece choir) wrote this album during the tense summer of 2020, and it reverberates with the same urgency as the protesters who filled the streets at that time. The multiple vocalists and samples speak to what was happening all around us that summer (and still now), and it comes together in a way that stresses the power of community and strength in numbers, as Damon and his collaborators simultaneously provide a musical backdrop that carefully blurs the lines between jazz, soul, Afrobeat, hip hop, and more. It transcends genre in a way that's so welcoming and uniting that it can draw you in even if you're not an avid jazz or Afrobeat listener, and though the songs are informed by unrest, these electrifying rhythms and melodies never fail to lift your spirit.
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.
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.
Indigo De Souza isn't holding back on her sophomore album, Any Shape You Take. Its songs are full to bursting with messy, painful, funny, and incomprehensible emotion, all expressed in her glorious, soaring voice, sometimes warped and stretched nearly beyond recognition, sometimes ragged with effort or strain. The music is just as shapeshifting, indie rock pulling from pop, garage, noise and beyond, frenetic and impassioned to go with Indigo's delivery. There are no half measures here, no hesitancy; each song feels huge and important and immediate, and consumes your attention entirely. Any Shape You Take is a huge leap ahead from Indigo's first album, 2018's I Love My Mom, and it's exciting to consider where she might go next.
Having collaborated for a decade, Jenny Hval and Håvard Volden made things official with Lost Girls, an electronic duo where improvisation leads to inspiration which leads to new and exciting musical territory. The five lengthy, intoxicating, beat-driven songs on their debut album, Menneskekollektivet, are a midnight drive with the headlights off, guided by the moon and intuition. (Or, as they put it on the album's centerpiece, "Carried by Invisible Bodies.") You may not know where they're taking you from one minute to the next, or how you got where you did, but by the end you'll follow them anywhere.
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.
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.
After over a decade of piano-based and ambient albums, Grouper has released her most guitar-forward album since 2008's beloved Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill and, as great as all of her music is, it's a real treat to hear this side of her again. Like Dragging, the bulk of Shade fuses the delicacy of '60s psychedelic folk, the gorgeous haze of '90s dream pop, and the pacing of ambient/drone music in a way that only Grouper can. As ever, she exists in a world of her own. As most of us navigate a world that's faster and busier than ever, with shorter attention spans than ever, Shade is an escape from all of that. It forces you to shut out all of the usual distractions and revel in some of the most impactful music released this year.
It would've been understandable if Clairo took the radio-friendly bedroom pop of 2019's Immunity in an even more widely accessible direction for its followup, but instead, she did the exact opposite. Working with producer Jack Antonoff, Clairo made a much more intimate album, one that looks to the folk, rock, and pop of the late '60s and early '70s and deals with the struggles Clairo has faced since becoming a rising star, from forgetting to call your family while on tour to dealing with sexist colleagues to relationship troubles. It's an album that finds Clairo taking the time to look inwards, and the result is her best music yet.
As the threat of global warming exponentially increases, Dallas old school death metal revivalists Frozen Soul have written a sci-fi concept album that imagines the earth getting taken over by a new ice age. I have no idea if Crypt of Ice is actually intended as some sort of social commentary or if the band is just having some fun with their icy theme, but either way, the band's commitment to the concept is thrilling and it's a nice twist on death metal's fascination with extinction that doesn't rely on stereotypical gore. And matching the unique concept are 10 of the best death metal songs released this year. Like a lot of new death metal bands, Frozen Soul's members have roots in the hardcore scene (vocalist Chad Green was in the hardcore band End Times, whose guitarist Daniel Schmuck produced/mixed Crypt of Ice and has also worked with Power Trip, Creeping Death, and more), and the spirit of hardcore informs this entire LP, from the chunky riffage to a knack for simplicity, but make no mistake: Crypt of Ice is very fucking death metal. Green sounds like he emerged from a swamp and the guitars are equally murky. It's pure evil.
Lucy Dacus had her big breakthrough with her sophomore album, 2018's Historian, and for its follow-up she delivered another memorable collection of songs, this time focused on her past. These vividly told tales could be right out of the childhood home videos of the album's title; they're given place and shape by small details, anchored by the emotional weight of songs like "Thumbs," with its story of meeting with an estranged father, "Please Stay," a plea to a suicidal friend, and "Triple Dog Dare," a wistful tale of a queer romance thwarted and eventual escape. Lucy experiments with her sound, too, going from the auto-tuned "Partner in Crime" to "Going Going Gone" with its campfire singalong vibes. Her storytelling prowess gets sharper with each release, and on Home Video she was at her most perceptive and poignant.
In just a few years, Newark rapper Mach-Hommy has released more music than most people can keep track of, most of it very good, and some of it only available for ridiculous amounts of money on his website. But this year, he teamed up with Westside Gunn's Griselda Records for one of his most widely-distributed releases yet, Pray for Haiti (which Gunn also executive produced and appears on), and Pray for Haiti was just as easy to enjoy as it was to stream legally. With Westside Gunn involved (again), Pray for Haiti is littered with pieces of the trademark Griselda sound, but it's still distinctly a Mach-Hommy album, with Mach's Haitian heritage filtered through his knack for reshaping the sounds of classic East Coast rap.
The incongruous mix of dryly delivered spoken-word vocals over revved up rhythms and spiky guitars are a winning combo that stretches back at least to the dawn of post-punk. In the right hands it remains a compelling formula, like on Dry Cleaning's debut album, New Long Leg. The band have both excellent angular grooves and, crucially, a master of deadpan, Florence Shaw, leading things with just the right amount of awkwardness. On the single "Scratchcard Lanyard," against slashing chords, she dryly lets everyone know, "I've come to learn how to mingle. I've come to learn how to dance. I've come to join your knitting circle," before the chorus of "Do everything and feel nothing." Few bands make the mundane feel so visceral.
Pick up a vinyl copy here.
With Entertainment, Death, Spirit of the Beehive have written one of the noisiest, most claustrophobic, most sensory-overload-inducing, most unpredictable indie pop albums of the year. They've got more things going on in one song than some bands do on entire albums, and they hop from one idea to another with the carefree spontaneity of a kid getting bored of their new favorite toy after 10 minutes and picking up a new one. Seemingly nothing is off limits, from samples and electronics to clean guitar pop to hair-raising post-hardcore to countless other sounds. Sometimes, it sounds like a dark, twisted version of chillwave. The entire time, it feels like you're in the middle of a cartoon exaggeration of a bad acid trip, one as whimsically terrifying as the album artwork. It's not an album I can listen to a lot because it takes so much out of you, but every time I do revisit, it feels just as flooring as the first time.
When this collaboration was first announced, Armand Hammer (aka billy woods and ELUCID) and The Alchemist seemed like a match made in underground rap heaven, and Haram proved to be every bit as exciting in execution as it was on paper. As ever, billy woods and ELUCID's lyrics are dense, deep, and not easy to penetrate, but Alchemist's warm, jazz-informed production makes things just a little more welcoming. Still, aside from easier entry points like an Earl Sweatshirt guest verse and the melodic album closer "Stonefruit," Haram remains a dark, demanding album. It doesn't aim to please listeners; it aims to challenge them.
Shabaka Hutchings remains at the forefront of the thrilling London jazz scene, and between his groups Sons of Kemet, Shabaka and the Ancestors, and The Comet Is Coming, rarely a year passes without a top-tier new album from him. This year brought Black to the Future, the latest album from the maximalist Afrobeat-tinged Sons of Kemet, and it's yet another stunning piece of work from Shabaka & co. With appearances from Moor Mother, Angel Bat Dawid, Kojey Radical, Lianne La Havas, and others, it sounds even more communal than Sons of Kemet usually do, and those artists help incorporate elements of spoken word, hip hop, R&B, and more. The instrumentation is lively and constantly in motion, and it was largely inspired by the mass social/political unrest of 2020, but it sounds hopeful and uplifting. As the album title implies, this is music that's working towards a better future.
Polo G took Chicago drill to the top of the charts with "Rapstar," and with Hall of Fame -- featuring that song and 19 others -- he proved he could make the song's winning formula last for the length of an entire LP. "Rapstar" is Hall of Fame's biggest hit, but it never overshadows the album, which offers up a slew of equally infectious songs. From guitar ballads like "Black Hearted" to hardened street anthems like "GNF (OKOKOK)," Polo G offers up an array of different sounds and emotions throughout the album, and even on its most boastful tracks, there's an overarching sense of melancholy. Hall of Fame looks celebratory on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you'll find that one of the year's most addictive albums is also one of the most tragic.
Is UK producer Inflo 2021's Most Valuable player? Not only did he produce Little Simz' Sometimes I Might Be Introvert and Cleo Sol's Mother, he also released NINE, the fifth album in three years by his enigmatic collective, SAULT, that also includes Cleo, Simz, Michael Kiwanuka and Kid Sister. (Unexpected guest on this one: '00-era singer Jack Peñate, who gets a writing credit on three tracks.) Like the group's two fantastic 2020 albums, the album deftly dances across styles -- hip hop, soul, jazz, R&B, dub, funk reggae, afrobeat, gospel, post-punk -- while mixing politics, protest, the personal and welcome splashes of humor. NINE is shorter than either of last years' Untitled albums and casts a wider sonic net, from gritty opener "London Gangs" to the funny culture clash "You From London?" (ft Little Simz) to the title track's gorgeous, flowery soul. The anger of 2020 still courses through SAULT's grooves, noting that "we get triggered when hearing the sound of the police." If NINE hasn't stayed in the public consciousness the way the Untitled albums (or Introvert) have, it may be by design, as they only made this available to stream, download or purchase for 99 days. It's now or never with SAULT -- everything is a call to action.
Lana Del Rey released her most expansive and most acclaimed album yet with 2019's Norman Fucking Rockwell!, and to follow it, she returned two years later with not one but two new albums. The combination of Chemtrails Over the Country Club and Blue Banisters is the most music Lana's ever released in a single year, but musically speaking, she takes her sound in a smaller, more introspective direction than NFR. With folk songs, piano ballads, and more earthy, bare-bones material, this some of Lana's most minimal, freeing music yet. These albums are full of moments that feel genuinely spontaneous, from the way she shoves too many words into the chorus of "White Dress" to the way she breaks out into a yell on "Dealer," and these feel like some of Lana's most authentic self-portraits yet. Whether she's making a winking comment about the male-dominated music industry, singing a breakup song, referencing her own work, or covering Joni Mitchell, this sounds like the most natural version of Lana Del Rey that the world has been exposed to yet.
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.
UK rapper Dave is the kind of storyteller that leaves you hanging on his every word. Whether he's rapping introspectively about his own personal struggles, or looking outwards at the blatant racism that continues to infect society worldwide, Dave makes every syllable sound heavy and full of purpose. On his hour-long second album We're All Alone in This Together, he has even more to say than he did on his instant classic 2019 debut Psychodrama, and the deeper you dive into this album, the more gripping it sounds. Aided by James Blake, Stormzy, Wizkid, Snoh Aalegra, Jae5, a member of Mount Kimbie, and more, the album seamlessly incorporates bits of Afrobeats, R&B, soul, forward-thinking electronic music, and more, making for an album that's as musically dazzling as it is lyrically powerful. Its sequencing feels cinematic, and when you hit the two long songs near the end (the 8-minute "Both Sides of a Smile" and the 10-minute "Heart Attack"), you can feel your blood rushing the way it does during the climax of an award-winning drama.
Since releasing her debut album SOUR, Olivia Rodrigo has been compared to Lorde, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Paramore, Kacey Musgraves, and more, sometimes to the point where writing credits were retroactively added due to perceived similarities. Olivia may wear her influences on her sleeve a bit, but she's not ripping off these artists; she's putting these influences together in new, exciting ways. Yes, the chorus of "good 4 u" sounds kinda like the chorus of "Misery Business," but the verses sound like downtempo alt-pop, and no one's really combined those two things before -- at least not this effectively. About half the songs on the album turned into some of the year's biggest hits, and be as cynical as you want, but it wouldn't have happened if the songs weren't this undeniable. Olivia wrote an album that won over the DIY punk community at the same time it won over the Radio Disney crowd, and more than anything else, it just comes down to the songwriting being that effective.
Pick up a vinyl copy here.
Torres' fifth and best album is the biggest, most joyous sounding thing she's done yet. From the propulsive heartland rock of "Don't Go Puttin Wishes In My Head" to the grungy power pop of "Hug From a Dinosaur," it's a triumphant batch of songs that glow with the thrill of a new love and demand that you sing along. Never before has Torres written songs that feel this widely appealing and irresistible, and it never comes off like an attempt to be more radio-friendly. Thirstier is Torres' most accessible album and it's also one of her most honest. This sounds like Torres fully and wholeheartedly being herself.
Vince Staples has never made the same album twice, and his diverse catalog already includes everything from a sweeping concept album to festival-sized bangers, but for his new self-titled album, he went for something much more intimate. Closer to an audio diary than a traditional rap album, Vince Staples rarely relies on hooks or refrains and has only guest, and it sounds more like Vince capturing his thoughts alone with a tape recorder, rather than writing songs for Coachella crowds to sing along to. Frequent collaborator Kenny Beats produced or co-produced every song, and Kenny proves to be just as versatile as Vince. Here, he provides Vince with some of the most minimal production of his career, making things just kinetic enough so you can still nod your head when you listen to Vince vent. It may not be as immediately accessible as Vince's other albums, but it endures as some of his most uniquely compelling work.
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.
If you like music that exists at the crossroads between weird and accessible, music that's so genre-defying that nobody has any idea what to call it, then you need L'Rain's Fatigue in your life. Throughout the album's 14 songs, you can hear elements of R&B, art pop, psychedelia, jazz, electronics, ambience, field recordings, and more, but combined in a way where it wouldn't really be accurate to call it any of those things. A lot is going on, much of it very experimental, and yet it still qualifies as some version of pop music. In a recent interview with Jenn Pelly on Pitchfork, L'Rain cited Animal Collective's early records as a formative influence, and though they sound nothing alike, you can feel a clear spiritual connection between those albums and Fatigue. It's been 15-20 years since that band challenged musical norms and brought outsider ideas to mainstream indie, and now L'Rain is doing the same.
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.
Arooj Aftab grew up in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and studied in Boston before moving to NYC, but her voice and music is otherworldly. Though practically our Brooklyn neighbor for over 10 years, we were a bit asleep and so the magnifcence of Vulture Prince caught us by surprise, guaranteed to be on this year end list after one listen with its place even more cemented with each meditative listen. To quote her Pitchfork 'Rising' feature, the album "honors and remagines centuries-old ghazals, a form of South Asian poetry and music that she grew up listening to with her family. The artform meditates on the intense longing caused by separation from God, and Aftab either sets this poetry to original music or entirely transforms existing songs, eschewing the frenetic South Asian instrumentation typical of the originals for minimalist orchestral arrangements." She cites legendary minimalist composer Terry Riley as an influence, and Terry's son and collaborator Gyan plays guitar on the album and in her live band. The prolific and amazing Shahzad Ismaily (of too many bands to list here) is also among the many talented players she assembled to weave together the dreamy chamber folk & jazz masterpiece (with a bit of reggae thrown in). Dedicated to her younger brother who died in 2018 while she was writing the album which then went in a new direction, you can feel the intense emotion in the music even if you don't understand the words. Her close friend Annie Ali Khan passed away the same year, and it's a poem written by Annie that comprise the lyrics of track 6, "Saans Lo," adding even more weight.
After making a grand statement with 2017's XL-released No Mountains In Manhattan, Wiki parted ways with his big record label and took a more insular approach on his subsequent projects, but with his Navy Blue-produced Half God, he seems to have finally found a comfortable middle ground between his most ambitious aspirations and his penchant for the underground. Like on NMIM, the main character of Half God is New York City. Patrick Morales, the person behind Wiki, shows up a lot too, but his own experiences are used as symbolism for life in the city at large. Half God feels like a day in the life of a New Yorker, from contemplating life on the roof of your apartment to glaring at gentrification. The artwork for No Mountains In Manhattan was a painting of NYC, one as vivid and full of wide-eyed admiration as Wiki's songs themselves. In contrast, Half God feels wiser and more reflective, like the work of an artist looking back at that same painting years later and seeing it in a new light. It's only been four years since that album, but Half God reminds you how quickly New York City, and its inhabitants, are always changing.
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.
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.
Moor Mother isn't just a rapper -- she also deals in jazz, spoken word, avant-garde, and more -- but with Black Encyclopedia Of The Air, she's made her most rap-centric, and most accessible, solo album to date. It's still a far more experimental album than what the average person might consider rap -- the closest comparison I can think of is Shabazz Palaces, but even that doesn't quite nail it -- but from the beats to Moor Mother's cadences, this is a rap album. And even if it's more easily digestible than just about anything else Moor Mother's ever released, she hasn't toned down her message one bit. The album is steeped in the centuries of American oppression, but it's more than a history lesson; its sights are set on paving the way for a better future.
Since his early mixtapes, Maxo Kream has shown off an ability to feed the listener in-depth storytelling with a spoonful of melodic sugar, and on Weight of the World, his stories have only gotten more intense and his hooks have only gotten catchier. Throughout the album's 16 songs, Maxo touches on the deaths of his cousin and brother, his grandmother being hospitalized with COVID, and other family traumas, and he does so while offering up some of the most appealing, self-assured rap music of the year. He's aided by standout appearances by Freddie Gibbs, A$AP Rocky, fast-rising Houston rapper Monaleo, and Tyler, the Creator (who produces and raps on major standout "Big Persona," a track as worthy as anything on Tyler's own 2021 album), making for the most effective cast of guests assembled for any Maxo Kream album. They add star power, but they never distract from the album's main draw: the inner workings of the mind of Maxo Kream.
"I never wanted to be a band that was associated with a particular decade," Andy Hull said earlier this year, and two decades removed from their breakthrough debut album, Manchester Orchestra are walking the walk. The Million Masks of God is an inventive art rock concept album that doesn't sound like anything else in Manchester Orchestra's discography -- nor like almost any other album released this year -- and it resonates in 2021 as strongly as Manchester Orchestra's early work did 15 years ago. With its atmospheric, electronic-infused production, comparisons to Kid A aren't unwarranted, and the album's wide palette of sounds finds room for everything from somber folk songs to the kind of sludgy rock bangers that Manchester have been churning out since Mean Everything to Nothing. Death looms large over the album, and for an artist who's spent half of his life writing about that topic, Andy Hull still finds ways to bring new perspective.
For his first major album in over a decade, spiritual jazz legend (and Alice and John Coltrane collaborator) Pharoah Sanders teamed up with jazz-friendly electronic musician Floating Points and The London Symphony Orchestra, and the result is an album unlike anything that either Pharoah Sanders or Floating Points have ever made. Owing just as much to ambient music as it does to jazz, it's a blissful, ethereal, meditative album that revolves around a simple keyboard and saxophone motif that repeats and morphs and evolves throughout the album's nine movements but always lands back where it began. It's far more bare than Pharoah Sanders' maximalist classics, but its simplicity is deceptive and its melodies are some of 2021's most hypnotic and enduring.
Pick this up on marble vinyl here.
Everything was coming up Michelle Zauner in 2021: she published her memoir Crying in H Mart to critical acclaim, and with a film adaptation on the way; she soundtracked a video game, Sable; and she released her stunning third album as Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee. True to its name, Jubilee explores joy, with the project's broadest sonic palette yet, skipping from exuberant synth-pop on infectious lead single "Be Sweet" to spacey passages on "Posing in Bondage" that recall Radiohead. It's the biggest, most ambitious work Zauner has done yet, and like everything else she's touched this year, it's a triumph.
If you know anything about this album, you know Billie Eilish is not happier than ever. For her second full-length, the artist behind the most meteoric rise that alternative music has seen in at least a decade is already fed up. She's jaded about music, sick of the ageism and sexism that comes with being a teenage girl in the public eye, sick of shitty exes and abusive relationships, and she could really use a little more privacy. She tells you all of this in conversational detail over a musical backdrop that varies between bedroom folk, jazz-pop, hip hop, dance beats, and the explosive grunge of the title track. Made entirely with her brother Finneas in his home studio without any interference from outside producers, it's Billie's second consecutive example of making the mainstream come to her.
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.
On "Hard Drive," Cassandra Jenkins spends five and a half minutes rattling off a spoken word, stream-of-consciousness story, with very little melody, a barely-there chorus, and often no attention paid to traditional rhyme scheme, as sparkling guitar arpeggios, deep piano chorus, and weeping saxophone play in the background. It's far from what anyone would consider a formula for a hit, and yet, it's one of the most addictive and widely-praised songs released this year. A song like that would be a triumph on its own, but it's only a small piece of the spectacular An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, which also offers up everything from breezy indie folk to somber piano ballads to a seven-minute ambient closer. It's an album where each song is distinctly different from the last, and each one feels like it's own mini epic.
Tamara Lindeman makes contending with the climate crisis sound more beautiful than it has any right to on her fifth album as The Weather Station, Ignorance. It's a major departure from her previous work, leaving behind heartland folk for smooth, spritely sophisti-pop, peppered with string embellishments as gorgeous and lush as the natural world she seeks to protect. Lindeman never preaches about our looming ecological disaster, instead painting it as a personal tragedy, like one might look at a breakup or the death of a friend. It's a thoughtful, introspective approach to a much-needed reckoning that we all should be doing -- and it sounds absolutely gorgeous.
Having released one of the best albums of 2019, some may have wondered how Little Simz would follow up GREY Area. Clearly, she was not one of those, and now that album feels like just an appetizer for this. Even if you didn't look at Sometimes I Might Be Introvert's 65-minute runtime or 19-song tracklist, it only takes about 10 seconds of the title track / opening cut to realize the scope, ambition, confidence and sheer talent at play here. Working once again with producer and SAULT svengali Inflo (as well as regular collaborator Cleo Sol and Obongjayar), this isn't an album, it's a globe-trotting epic full of sweep and swagger, orchestrated battle royales, intimate character moments, showstopping choreographed set-pieces and joyous bacchanals. Little Simz is writer, director and star, is in full control, never lacks focus, has incredible flow, and sticks the landing. And unlike some works of this scale, it's over too soon. As for how she'll follow this one up, it's not for us to worry, only for us to wait.
After almost entirely abandoning rap on 2019's great IGOR, Tyler, the Creator got back in touch with rapping with a few key guest verses in 2020 and then 2021 saw the release of his most straight-up rap album in years. Call Me If You Get Lost features DJ Drama shouting over most of the tracks, hearkening back to Drama's classic Gansta Grillz mixtape series, but Call Me If You Get Lost isn't exactly a return to a more traditional sound. It's got some of the best and most innovative production work of any album released in any genre this year. Tyler's crafted a straight-up rap album that doesn't sound like any other artist's definition of a straight-up rap album. He remains in a world of his own.
How do you follow up a game-changer of a record? If you're Minnesota duo Low, whose 2018 album Double Negative ripped apart their sound while keeping their soul intact, you push things even further. Working again with producer BJ Burton, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker take blowtorches, bandsaws, and ball-pin hammers to their signature, sublime brand of slowcore, and then melt it down into liquid metal. HEY WHAT is a record where you may wonder if your stereo is malfunctioning, if your wifi is on the fritz, or if someone slipped something in your drink. Instrumentation is distorted to the point where you're not sure if what you're hearing are guitars, keyboards, or slowed-down recordings of garbage trucks. But then come Sparhawk and Parker's voices, searing through the maelstrom like a beam of pure light even when what they're singing is as heavy as the music: "When you think you've seen everything, you find yourself living in days like these." We can all relate. The effect, the voices and music, can be overwhelming, but also cathartic if you let Low's beautiful noise wash over you.
Pick up a vinyl copy here.
For the long-awaited followup to 2015's Reality Show, Jazmine Sullivan has delivered her most honest, spontaneous, and down-to-earth release yet. She's always sung directly about womanhood, but with this mix of proper songs and spoken word interludes by several women, Heaux Tales discusses sex, sexuality, power, shame, inequality, and other topics in a more direct, candid way than her albums ever have. The music feels freer too, offering up a more stripped-back, less polished version of the R&B and neo-soul she'd been honing for over a decade. On both a lyrical and musical level, it's her fiercest, most defiant work.
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.