We continue our review of the year in music with today’s feature on our Favorite 20 EPs of 2021. Despite most of the mini-albums coming between four to six songs, they left a permanent mark with their intelligence, honesty, and creativity. As always, the list is in alphabetical order by artist / band name. After going through this list, spend some time reading about the 20 Hidden Gems who made an everlasting first impression.
A Place to Bury Strangers – Hologram (Dedstrange)
A Place to Bury Strangers are among New York’s most influential bands over the last two decades. Their 2018 record Pinned was the band’s most diverse, and critically acclaimed record yet. With their 2021 EP, Hologram, A Place to Bury Strangers dialed back into that raw, roaring sound that defined their early years. “End of the Night” starts things out with some strange echoed drum machine, and it goes into a fuzzy, distorted guitar. That fuzz is present throughout, whether it’s the fast pace on “I Might Have” or the EP’s huge closer “I Need You”. Hologram is immense in its sound, and a great taste of why Oliver Ackermann, John Fedowitz (bass), and Sandra Fedowitz (drums) continue to be such an influential force.
Beach Bunny – Blame Game (Mom + Pop Music)
Clocking in at just under 14 minutes, Beach Bunny‘s Blame Game is a perfectly-sized dose of nostalgic pop-rock. The EP commences with a bang with the pop-punk “Good Girls (Don’t Get Used)”, turning the lyrics typically found in that genre on its head. “Love Sick” is a blast to listen to with a great groove. “Nice Guys” channels the mid-’90s styles like Weezer, and the EP closes with “Blame Game”, which full of guitar chime goodness. It’s one thing to channel bands from 30 years ago, but to also call out problematic stuff from those records on the same EP is what makes Blame Game stand out in the sea of ’90s nostalgia we hear today.
Bleach Lab – A Calm Sense of Surrounding & Nothing Feels Real
It’s one thing for a band to release one outstanding EP, but two? Never to shy from a challenge as DIY underdogs, Bleach Lab did exactly this. The quartet commenced 2021 with A Calm Sense of Surrounding, which takes ’90s-inspired dream-pop and turns it into a cinematic daydream a la The Sundays. Although each of the mini-album’s five songs could perfectly inside the soundtracks for Clerks, Reality Bites, and Empire Records, the lush tones and the tender stories of “Old Ways” and “Never Be” would have been centerpieces.
Nothing Feels Real is a continuation of Calm. Beautifully striking in its quality and warm and intimate in its songwriting, vocalist Jenna Kyle, bassist Josh Longman, guitarist Frank Wates, and drummer Kieran Weston hit all the emotional chords. From love lost (“Real Thing”), losing a parent way too soon (“Violet Light”), and holding on to see one more day (“Talk It Out”), the band share not just their stories; they also are telling ours. No wonder they’ve catapulted into the forefront of the UK indie scene despite remaining independent.
Gold Star – Headlights USA (Sub Rosa Records)
While many great American singer-songwriters have brilliantly captured life on the open road and the rise and fall of the country, sometimes it takes a new arrival to provide a different and honest perspective of its trials and tribulations. Gold Star‘s mini-album, Headlights U.S.A., is the kind of record that opens eyes, ears, and minds. On the Springsteen-esque “Surrender”, the Phosphorescent-inspired title track, and the Kevin Morby-inspired “Heaven Motherfucker”, for instance, Marlon Rabenreither shares how he was once filled with life and aspired for greatness, but he currently faces an identity crisis. He is at a crossroads, just like the place he now calls home. There is one difference, however: the Swiss-born’s trajectory is heading skywards.
Hiss Golden Messenger – The Sounding Joy: Hiss Golden Messenger Meets Revelators on South Robinson Street (Merge Records)
If we were giving out an award to Artist of the Year, MC Taylor’s project Hiss Golden Messenger would be the runaway winner. He released a stellar LP in Quietly Blowing and a holiday album called O Come All Ye Faithful. His triumphant effort, however, is The Sounding Joy: Hiss Golden Messenger Meets Revelators on South Robinson Street.
On the six-track EP, Taylor extends himself into new territory. Traditional Americana instruments are set aside for synths, drum machines, saxophones, autotune and vocoders, as Taylor turns to folktronica, electric soul, and even a bit of dubstep. Despite the change in approach, the music still feels organic and intimate, which is due to Taylor treating each song like a post-modern hymn. Consequently, the EP does the rare thing – it touches us spiritually, emotionally, and even physically.
Holly Humberstone – The Walls Are Way Too Thin (Darkroom/Interscope & Polydor Records)
Few EPs leave such a mark after a first listen as Holly Humberstone‘s The Walls Are Way Too Thin. Its opening song, “Haunted House”, is a gorgeous piano ballad, with just Humberstone on the keys before building into a stunning whirlwind of harmonies. The intimate moments of that first track give way to an EP full of charming electronics and haunting songwriting. Whether it’s “Please Don’t Leave Just Yet” or “Thursday”, each track carries an emotional heft. Mostly rooted in breakups, either of her own or friends, Humberstone’s wit makes things feel much more relatable. “Friendly Fire”, the EP’s closer is a microcosm of the EP, starting out with something bare and building into something much, much bigger. Just like how Humberstone’s popularity is trending.
Horse Show – Falsterbo (PNKSLM)
Quietly, a super-group from Sweden released one of the great shoegaze albums of the past ten years. Comprising of Erik Klinga (Simian Ghost, Light Vibes), Caroline Landahl (Hater), Tobias Widman (YAST), Frederick Rundquist (FEWS, Hater), and Rasmus Andersson (FEWS, Hater), Horse Show‘s debut EP, Falsterbo, is electrifying and memorable. Within its five songs, the mini-album captures the energy and brilliance of Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, and Lush. At the same time, they demonstrated that this great genre can still be perfected. The swirling “Used To” buzzes with a hazy urgency. “Shame” grows into superb, blistering climax. The EP’s closer, “Hästskandalen”, meanwhile, is dreamy and delightful Scandi-gaze goodness. Should the quintet stay together, they could be one day be the standard to which all future shoegaze bands are compared.
La Loye – To Live Underwater
Lieke Heusinkveld’s, who goes by the name La Loye, debut EP, To Live Underwater, is a truly captivating collection of songs. The mini-album kicks off with the huge title track that sets the pace quite nicely. “White Summer” is a gorgeous acoustic track with something bubbling underneath throughout, finally bubbling over in an incredible moment. “I’m Still Asleep” is the EP’s centerpiece, featuring with some gorgeous brass/woodwinds, electric piano, and an incredible slow build.
Giving way to the intimate “I Only Hear You In My Song” before the record’s huge closer, “About Imagining Things”, To Live Underwater wears its influences on its sleeves. There are moments that feel like The National and other times like Julien Baker and Sufjan Stevens, but it never feels derivative. It builds on each, and Heusinkveld’s songwriting hits in a way that is completely her own.
Land of Talk – Calming Night Partner (Dine Alone / Saddle Creek)
In 2020, Land of Talk released a fantastic album in Indistinct Conversations, which was arguably Elizabeth Powell’s most open and vulnerable output to date. It was also extremely courageous, as the Montreal-based singer-songwriter revealed her deepest secrets and insecurities to the world. But her story was not finish. In November, Powell unveiled the Calming Night Partner, which simultaneously looked into the future and the past. The EP’s first two tracks –”Leave Life Alone” and “Moment Feed” – possessed the energy of an individual that has learned to move on, freed from the burdens of the past. The striking yet mournful coolness of the title track, however, concerns an existential relationship, and how we still look to the unseen for answers and inspiration. However, maybe all we need is for more artists to move us like Powell does, where the answers are to be found in our shared experiences.
Luca Wilding – Book of Fate (Abbey Records)
If Luca Wilding did not find himself on this list, he would have certainly been on our Favorite Discoveries of 2021 because we were left slack-jawed when hearing him for the first time. Little did we know that first impression would lead us down the rabbit hole and discover Book of Fate. The EP, at its height, is stunning and breathtaking while Wilding’s incredible songwriting is at times fantasy like and other moments knee-buckling in its reality. While a great mystery and warmth emerge from “Song of Carmen” and “Nobody Game”, Wilding reaches supreme levels on “Book of Fate” and “Mama Make the Pain Stop”, which are two of the finest songs of the year. On the latter, London-based singer-songwriter dives into the mind of a mother and wife struggling with bipolar disorder. He tells the story with great care and respect, capturing the pain of everyone involved through the prism of remarkable art.
Mannequin Pussy – Perfect (Epitaph)
Mannequin Pussy‘s 2019 record, Patience, was one hell of a record. Punk influenced but so much more, the LP was defined by its unashamed, unrelenting honesty. On Perfect, the band of Missy Dabice (vocals, guitar, synth), Colins Regisford (vocals, bass), and Kaleen Reading (drums) took that honesty and vulnerability from Patience, pared it down to 15 minutes, and added more frustration and anger to the equation. A frustration on the state of the world and the lack of control is where the EP’s first track, “Control”, comes from. With “Perfect”, heavy chords, and confrontational lyrics kick things up several notches. The gorgeous “To Lose You” follows, creating a great dynamic of polarizing sounds that allows “Pigs is Pigs” to hit even harder. Perfect is an EP that shares all of the frustrations and anger of the last couple of years. The inability to perform in front of a crowd, the world shutting down, the constant political and social issues including police violence that keep plaguing the world.
Miss Grit – Impostor
Miss Grit‘s debut EP, Talk Talk was a well-received record, and the hype was well deserved. However, Margaret Sohn could not shake the feeling of impostor syndrome. Sohn channeled those feelings, as well as those from growing up in a mostly white community in Michigan, into her new EP, Impostor. For the mini-album, Sohn wanted to eliminate any outside forces on her music; therefore, she produced the record herself. Right from the first moments, Miss Grit’s creativity is on full display. Electronics and lush harmonies create a truly ethereal introduction to the record. The rest of Imposter is full of guitar-led tracks that show Sohn is indeed the real deal. There’s a shoegaze feel on “Blonde”, then there’s just some undeniably great riffage on “Buy The Banter” and “Grow Up To”. “Dark Side of the Party” and “Impostor” close the record out with two truly phenomenal songs.
Pixey – Free to Live in Colour (Chess Club Records)
Lizzie Hillesdon blends a plethora of styles into her own brand of “cosmic pop” with Pixey. Her unique combination of styles is immediately apparent from the first moments of Free to Live in Colour. A guitar hook digs in, and killer bass and drum groove make it impossible to stay still when listening to “Just Move”. From there, the EP only gets more interesting with the addicting and witty “California”. “Electric Dream” and “The Mersey Line” also bring their own different feel to the EP with the former being a spaced-out pop track. The title track, “Free to Live in Colour”, brings things full circle, feeling like a perfect culmination of the songs that came before it. Free to Live in Colur was not Pixey’s only EP in 2021, as she also released the charming and fun Sunshine State.
Skullcrusher – Storm in Summer (Secretly Canadian)
Judging Skullcrusher by name only may paint a completely different picture than the one Helen Ballentine does with her songs. Storm in Summer, her sophomore EP, is one full of beauty, emotion, and catharsis. The huge harmonies and the perfectly crafted combination of banjo, guitar, and drums on “Windshield” set the tone for the EP. “Song for Nick Drake” and “Steps” are gorgeous, focusing mostly on Ballentine’s lyrics over acoustic guitar. “Storm in Summer” builds into something huge, a full band sound, and features some of the EP’s best moments. That full, well-produced sound gives way to “Prefer”, a lo-fi track with just Ballentine and her guitar once more accompanied by little more than ambient static.
Sprints – Manifesto (Nice Swan Records)
Nearly a year ago, we named Sprints as Artists to Watch in 2021, and the Dublin post-punk outfit did not disappoint. Actually, they exceeded all expectations, releasing two outstanding singles and one mightily awesome EP in Manifesto. Furious, exhilarating, and cathartic, Karla Chubb (lead vocals/guitar), Sam McCann (bass/backing vocals), Colm O’Reilly (guitar/backing vocals), and Jack Callan’s (drums) intelligently capture society’s ills and humanity’s self-destructive nature. Toxic relationships are at the center of the foreboding “Drones”, and capitalism’s grip on society is handled on the explosive “Swimming”. Meanwhile, the title track is an urgent call for people to be who they are, and the blistering “Ashley” is reminder that we are not alone in battling our demons. And Sprints are a reminder that guitar-driven music can still reign in the hands of a band with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Veps – Open the Door (Kanine Records)
We easily could have named Laura Dodson (guitar), June K. Urholt (bass), Maja B. Berge (drums), and Helena Olasveengen’s (keys) project, Veps, on any number of lists. They could have been on our Favorite Hidden Gems since they were at the top of one of our lists. The Oslo-stationed quartet also could be Artists to Watch in 2022 since they have a UK tour scheduled in March (but how are they not going to SXSW?). Their debut EP, Open the Door, though, was too great to leave off.
Despite their youth (they’re barely out of high school – actually they might still be in high school), the foursome’s music is as varied and diverse as Warpaint and HINDS. They can, as such, deliver catchy indie pop-rock numbers (like “Colorblind”), tranquil and extremely intimate tunes (“Girl on TV”, “Ecstasy”), and slow building rockers (“Oliver”). Regardless of the approach, their songwriting is impeccable. Whereas most artists their age adopt a diarist approach, Veps usually tell other people’s stories. They realize that this world is greater than them, and the most powerful music that can be created is if people can see them in it.
Wallice – Off the Rails
There are few releases from this year that are as fun of a listen as Wallice‘s Off The Rails. Wallice Hana Watanabe channels many Gen-Z’s anxieties and turns them into fun, infectious, and relatable pop songs for even those a bit older. “Off The Rails” has some wonderful guitar leads, clashing with Watanabe’s distorted vocals and a heavy synth bassline. “23” is a relatable track for anyone who grew up since the ’90s and feeling the pressure to live something resembling the American dream. “Hey Michael” paints an all too common scene of male manipulation and trying to escape consequences. Off The Rails is about the struggle the younger generation find themselves, as a drying up economy has made basic needs seem to be luxuries. Throughout the record, Wallice tries to figure it all out. Perhaps these lines from the title track say it best. “My life’s a mess but I don’t give a shit / Never try my best I learn to live with it”
Womb – Holding a Flame (Flying Nun Records)
For one of us, no EP shined brighter than Holding a Flame from Wellington-based Womb. Mournful, haunting, breathtaking, and cathartic, the mini-album is Gothic dreamgaze made extraordinary. The startling 37-second “Intro” is just a warning shot to the EP’s centerpieces – the epic stunner “Mercury” and the stark and mesmerizing “Love”. Beneath the dreamy intoxication lies stories of vulnerability and devastation. On “Love”, front-person Charlotte Forester alluringly asks another, “Break me, this body / Like I’m made to be broken”. The title track takes the theme further, and in the process Charlotte Forrester (vocals/guitar), Haz Forrester (synths/keys), and Georgette Brown (drums) share one of the most brittle and grief-stricken love songs of the year. They also have delivered arguably the very best EP of the year.
Wombo – Keesh Mountain (Fire Talk)
An indie band will have made it big when they’ve been invited to either perform live in KEXP’s studio or on an NPR Tiny Desk episode. Wombo should soon experience this fate on the strength of Keesh Mountain. At a spry nine minutes in duration, the EP’s four songs possess a David Byrne- and Deerhoof-like alt-pop / art-rock vibe. And like these great artists, they turn quirky, off-kilter music into something immensely fun, witty, and somehow catchy, such as the bubbly “Dreamsickle” and the whirlwind “Situations. Even the more methodical numbers – “Ida Mae” and “Just Like Time” – feel like they could be songs played for a slow-motion, post-modern version of the foxtrot. Despite this odd imagery, we enjoy every second of Wombo’s creativity.
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