Trying to come out with our Favorite 50 Albums of 2021 was no easy task because it meant leaving off dozens that we adored. But after 51 weeks and some 355 days, these are the LPs that we would take with us to a deserted island. The list is littered with debut and sophomore albums from rising stars while some more well-known veteran artists also make their way.

The playlist below features songs from each album except for one (find out which one by reading below). Happy Holidays everyone. Our annual Mega, Mega Playlist will be available a week today.

 

Adia Victoria – A Southern Gothic (Canvasback Music / Atlantic Records)

It might be too early to anoint Adia Victoria as a legend, but she has at the very least established herself as one of this era’s finest singer-songwriters. Like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith before her, the South Carolina native’s Gothic blues and roots music are timeless and classic. It is also immensely powerful, drawing in the likes of T Bone Burnett to produce her new LP, A Southern Gothic, and Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Kyshona Armstrong, and Matt Berninger as collaborators.

In its tone and stories, the album captures the history and present of the American South. The dark yet enrapturing “Whole World Knows”, the soulful “Mean-Hearted Woman”, and “Carolina Bound” poignantly articulate the past and current struggles, particularly those of African-American women. The sobering “Deep Water Blues” and a rousing cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “You Was Born To Die” are unflinchingly political. Even when Victoria’s focus turns inward, an unquestionable political message is heard, where the white person’s rules and expectations are the shackles to progress and freedom (“Troubled Mind”). With music that provokes like the songs on A Southern Gothic, maybe it’s not too early to call Adia Victoria a legend.

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Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams (PIAS / Transgressive)

When Arlo Parks emerged on the scene in 2018 with the gorgeous and smart “Cola”, it was immediately obvious the young artist from London was destined for stardom. Two superb EPs followed, which only added momentum to this belief. Everything became validated with Parks’ debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams.

The LP demonstrated Parks’ unmatched ability to communicate, provoke, and leave listeners wanting more. Through 12 brilliantly-composed tracks that mix bedroom-pop with ’90s-inspired R&B, Parks shares personal yet relatable vignettes about learning who we are and our shared experiences – from mental health (“Hurt”, “Hope”, “Black Dog”), sexuality (“Eugene”, “Green Eyes”), and abuse (“Bluish”). Collapsed in Sunbeams is not just a great album; it is perfection. And Parks has a Mercury Prize on her mantle as proof.

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Bachelor – Doomin’ Sun (Polyvinyl Records / Lucky Number / Milk! Records) 

Bachelor is the project of both Jay Som’s Melina Duterte and Palehound’s Ellen Kempner. Their first record together, Doomin’ Sun, contains so many of the qualities that make both Palehound and Jay Som great bands and explores a ton of new territory for both artists. 

On Doomin’ Sun, there are times where one or the other shines. For instance, “Back Of My Hand” feels like a Palehound track, while “Moon” could be from a Jay Som record. Where the album really shines is ontracks like “Stay In The Car”, where both Kempner and Duterte blend their two styles effortlessly. There’s the gorgeous “Spin Out”, which is something unlike what we’ve heard from either songwriter so far. Then there’s the country-fied “Sick of Spiraling”, inspired by a saying from Big Thief’s Buck Meek. Doomin Sun’ is an album that celebrates two songwriters, whose sum is way more than the sum of its parts.

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Bess Atwell – Already, Always (Real Kind Records) 

After years of flying under the radar, the spotlight finally shone brightly on Bess Hildick-Smith, who is better known as Bess Atwell. Her sophomore album, Already, Always, is a stunning piece of melancholic folk-rock, where even the quietest moments stir emotions. While the music warms souls, the introspective and honest stories hear through Atwell’s gorgeous voice are soul-crushing yet possess a tender immediacy. 

So when the Brighton-based singer-songwriter asks, “Is man’s best friend on a lead?”, on the crippling “All You Can Do”, we immediately comprehend how one’s love is no longer reciprocated. We understand what it’s like to want to be adored (“Olivia, in a Separate Bed”), how life can be fragile (“Co-op), and how heartbreak can be devastating (“Love Is Not Enough”, “How Do You Leave”). This can leave a person vulnerable. “Nobody thinks I’m special yet”, Atwell sings at the end of the lovely “Time Comes in Roses”. Such words may have applied at one point, but the opposite is now beyond true – Atwell is an exceptional artist that has released a remarkable album.

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Big Red Machine – How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? (Jagjaguwar) 

Just looking at the list of names on Big Red Machine’s How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is impressive. Justin Vernon, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Sharon Van Etten, Anaïs Mitchell, and even Taylor Swift among others are all featured on the record.

The record starts out incredibly strong with the Anaïs Mitchell-led “Latter Days”, which has that distinctive Dessner sound to it. Mitchell appears again alongside Fleet Foxes on “Phoenix”, which is full of gorgeous piano and some of the record’s best vocal performances. Then there are the two Taylor Swift tracks. “Birch” is exactly what you’d expect from Justin Vernon and Taylor Swift, with Vernon’s manipulated vocals clashing with Swift’s. “Renegade” feels like a straight-up Taylor Swift track with a little more of that The National feel the Dessners bring. While there are so many huge moments and huge personalities, the engine that drives the Big Red Machine are the Dessner twins. On “The Ghost of Cincinnati”, a rare Aaron Dessner solo track, he makes that fact obvious. “Hutch” is a tribute to the late Scott Hutchison, featuring Vernon, Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, and Shara Nova, and it’s as gorgeous and heartbreaking as one would expect.

How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last is a time capsule of a very unique time in alternative music. Bon Iver and The National alone are two huge names, but hearing them collaborate with so many names, big and small, really makes this project something special.

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Black Country, New Road – For the First Time (Ninja Tune) 

At just six songs, Black Country, New Road’s debut, For the First Time, could be considered an EP. But with a run time over 40 minutes and the mark that each number leaves, For the First Time is a full-length in our books. And every song is sensational, showcasing Isaac Wood (vocal/guitar), Luke Mark (guitar), Tyler Hyde (bass), Max Kershaw (keys), Lewis Evans (sax), Georgina Ellery (violin), and Charlie Wayne’s (drums) extraordinary talent.

Despite being similar in composition as Arcade Fire, their approach is far darker, denser, and spine-tingling, as heavy dashes of the theatrical are sprinkled through the septet’s blend of post-punk, art-rock, and art-punk. Wood’s songwriting and harrowing baritone add further effect to the suspense of “Athens, France”, “Science Fair”, and “Opus”. The spinning urgency of “Sunglasses” feels simultaneously fleeting and crushing, as the song descends from calm skies to manic art-punk. Even the dream-like “Track X” and ”Instrumental” are chilling despite the levitation felt on the former and nary a word said on the latter. The London-based outfit’s ingenuity is a multi-faceted benefit: it allows them to explore new sonic terrain, keeps listeners on the edge of their seats, and wows with repeated listens as something new is discovered.

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Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature (Ba Da Bing Records) 

On her sophomore record, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, Cassandra Jenkins has solidified herself as one of this generation’s great storytellers. The music is warm and inviting, as acoustic chords, strings, and electric guitar welcome the listener on “Michelangelo”. “New Bikini” is just as striking, singing of the healing powers of the ocean from different points of view including herself, a fisherman, and her mother. 

A similar approach is taken on “Hard Drive”, which one of the year’s best songs and sees Jenkins tell a story about an interaction with a security guard. Jenkins then plays on the term “Hard Drive”, singing of the mind and driving lessons. “Crosshairs” is yet another example of Jenkins’ clever way with words, singing, “All I want is to fall apart / In the arms of someone entirely strange to me”, over some of the record’s most gorgeous instrumentation. “Ambiguous Norway” and “Hailey” are equally stunning, featuring a mostly stripped-back sound. The record closes with the ambient “The Ramble”, featuring sounds of the outdoors and nature. Clocking in at 7 minutes, it gives listeners just enough time to reflect on An Overview on Phenomenal Nature and cue it up for another spin.

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Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time (Milk! Records / Mom + Pop Music / Marathon Artists) 

Courtney Barnett’s trademark wit, deadpan delivery, and undeniable guitar chops have positioned her as one of the most engaging musicians in recent memory. Her ability to turn the mundane into something interesting and even cathartic is without peer. On Things Take Time, Take Time, however, Barnett dials things back from her recent, louder releases, and creates her most personal record yet.

Things Take Time, Take Time was written mostly during 2020 in her apartment, and it feels very much like an album written in isolation. It’s also Barnett’s most positive record, lyrically. While her witty observational style is still there, there’s an optimism, an embrace of patience, realizing that we should “Take It Day By Day”. While there are no straight-forward guitar rippers, there’s plenty of great guitar work to be found, such as the great leads on “Sunfair Sundown” to the chime of “Write A List of Things To Look Forward To”. Things Take Time Take Time is a refreshing change among all of the pandemic-era records that are shrouded in darkness, and we find some light from an unlikely source in Courtney Barnett.

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Deafheaven – Infinite Granite (Sargent House)

When Deafheaven arrived on the scene in 2010, they shocked and awe when they introduced blackgaze, which turned shoegaze into a literal primal scream. More than a decade later, George Clarke, Kerry McCoy, Daniel Tracy, Shiv Mehra, and Chris Johnson once again startle but in a much different way. Whereas much of their first four albums hovered in gloomy doom, Infinite Granite sees the quintet going interstellar.

Shoegaze, post-rock, and dream-pop are meticulously woven together, creating the sonic equivalent of an extraordinary cosmic experience. Infinite Granite’s brilliance, however, resides in how the San Francisco-based quintet have crafted a concept album. With lyrics and song titles suitable for Isaac Asimov’s The God’s Themselves and Dante’s Inferno, the band question humanity’s existence (“Shellstar”, “In Blur”, “Great Mass of Color”), its purpose (“Lament for Wasps”), and what really is reality (“Villain”, “Mombasa”). The answers to the questions are partially answered on “The Gnashing”, which is a full-throttle, shoegaze hydrogen bomb. But instead of trying to rip us apart as was their previous objective, they invite us on this journey of discovery. They invite us to embrace the other side of the darkness with them.

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Desperate Journalist – Maximum Sorrow! (Fierce Panda Records)

In their first three albums as Desperate Journalist, Jo Bevan, Rob Hardy, Simon Drowner, and Caroline Helbert have constantly evolved. As they moved from Gothic post-punk to darkgaze, the quartet’s music remained cathartic while the songwriting has always gripping, relevant, and provocative. Their fourth album, Maximum Sorrow!, however, is their grand achievement.

Through a prism that mixes Gothic melancholy with feverish post-punk, the album is full of brilliant juxtapositions. The unexpected optimism that rings through “Armaggedon” is countered by the mournful tone of “Utopia”, on which one’s last rites are read. The Gothic disco-punk of “Everything You Wanted” is a person’s realization that no amount of success and adoration can fill the immense hole in one’s soul. A plea to be loved at first seems to emerge from the electrifying “Personality Girlfriend”, but it’s a biting critique of society’s treatment of women. Meanwhile, the bleak yet roaring “Fault” and the explosive “Fine in the Family” describe how home can be suffocating. Despite the LP’s foreboding tone, Desperate Journalist attempt to release listeners from their desolate places by first confronting the darkness that exists within us.

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Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg (4AD)

A year ago, Dry Cleaning were one of our 20 Favorite Hidden Gems, although maybe they should have been Artists to Watch. Regardless, expectations were high for Nick Buxton (drums), Tom Dowse (guitar), Lewis Maynard (bass), and Florence Shaw (vocals) after they signed with 4AD. While some whittle under the pressure, the London-based quartet excelled, delivering one of the most off-kilter and interesting albums in New Long Leg.

The bizarre LP title is just a precursor of what is in store. Musically, the quartet channel OMNI, Talking Heads, Preoccupations, Fontaines D.C., and Deeper to create a jerky and gyrating interpretation of art-punk. At times, it can seem methodically hypnotic (“Unsmart Lady”, “Leafy”), steely cool (“John Wick”), or even like a walk in a park (“More Big Birds”). Shaw’s lyricism, though, is the showstopper – it literally induces one to pause to listen because her stories are, well, wacky.

On “Scatchcard Lanyard”, for instance, a bouncing ball in Tokyo, Osaka, and Rio de Janeiro is an analogy for our mundane lives. “Strong Feelings” includes great lines like “I’ve been thinking about eating that hot dog for hours” and “I’ve got scabs on my head” to further denote how uninteresting life has become. On “Her Hippo”, Shaw offers numerous vignettes to describe the different shapes and sizes that the assholes of the world assume. It’s all extremely amusing, yet it is all somehow very real. We just needed someone to open our eyes to make us realize how weird and screwed up this world really is.

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Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell (Sargent House)

Emma Ruth Rundle wears her emotions on her sleeves – or in this case revealing her inner thoughts and struggles in her music. Her previous two albums, Marked for Death and On Dark Horses, described her dance with mortality, which was told through a widescreen yet solitary atmosphere. On Engine of Hell, Rundle turns the page, starting a new chapter that sees the acclaimed singer-songwriter describe how the dance continues but this time on her terms.

Pensive yet emotive, bare and raw musically, Rundle’s fourth album is startling yet enriching. Most of the LP’s eight songs feature just the LA-based singer-songwriter and either a piano or guitar, and the minimalist approach allows the attention to focus on Rundle’s struggles with addiction and depression. Her songwriting is devouring in its effect, as she honestly and openly describes how the darkness had fully consumed her. The beautifully vulnerable “Return” is a plea to herself to not cross through the Gates of Hell, which is where she finds herself on the mournful “In My Afterlife”. Biblical references fill “Blooms of Oblivion”, which sounds like a eulogy to her past life. While on “The Company” and “Razor’s Edge”, Rundle reveals how she evolved into “the demon that I have become”.  

There is, however, redemption, which is wonderfully depicted on “Citadel”. “Here in my citadel of self / I can be safe”, as she shares her newfound sobriety with the world. These are the words of an artist who was once marked for death and rode on dark horses but only to come back. To come back and once again astonish in new ways.

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Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny haha (Secretly Canadian) 

One of the year’s biggest breakout artists was undeniably Faye Webster. Fueled by the release of her fourth record, I Know I’m Funny haha, Webster even found herself on Barack Obama’s year end playlist. Like the title infers, I Know I’m Funny haha is a self-aware, witty, and honest record. Whether Webster’s singing about her landlord, the bassist from Linkin Park on the album’s title track, or falling in love with a baseball player on “Dream With a Baseball Player”, there’s a charm and lightheartedness to much of the record. Combine that with some fantastic throwback and soulful instrumentals, it’s easy to see why there’s so much love for this record. And why Webster is a star in the making. 

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Geese – Projector (Partisan Records / Play It Again Sam)

Cameron Winter (vocals, keyboard), Max Bassin (drums), Gus Green (guitar), Dominic DiGesu (bass), and Foster Hudson’s (guitar) project Geese may seem unassuming by name, but the recent high school graduates’ debut album is anything but. On the contrary, Projector is an unpredictable thrill ride. When one expects it to roar, the band shift gears and dazzle. Just as a song starts to go full throttle, the brakes are suddenly hit and then out of nowhere it accelerates. And like all great roller coasters, the experience is meant to be relived repeatedly.

The one-two punch of the lullaby-turned-post-rock opus “First World Warrior” and the exhilarating chaos that is “Disco” exemplify the teenagers’ manic brilliance. The art-punk of “Rain Dance” and the funky, Talking Heads-esque “Low Era” showcase how the band can turn off-kilter delirium into an addictive melody. Despite Geese’s youth, they’re not singing about typical young persons’ problems. Instead, their stories are as clever as the music, such as the growing dystopia caused by misinformation and apathy (“Opportunity is Knocking”) and a Bohemian serial killer (“Fantasies / Survival”). Their off-the-wall tales and whirlwind approach are what make Projector the stuff of legends.  

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Gustaf – Audio Drag for Ego Slobs (Royal Mountain Records)

For more than three years, Lydia Gammill (vocals), Tarra Thiessen (vocals, percussion), Vramshabouh Kherlopian (guitar, vocals), Tine Hill (bass), and Melissa Lucciola (drums) have been in a constant state of experimentation. While Gustaf‘s music foundation is etched in ’70s-era New York City punk and the art-rock chaos of the Talking Heads, there is no boilerplate for their frenzied approach nor the off-the-cuff, tongue-in-cheek songwriting. Their hard-working efforts have led to Audio Drag for Ego Slobs, on which they have perfected the madness with dizzying results.

At a crisp 31 minutes, Gustaf’s debut album is amusing, witty, and made for gyrating after a two-year slumber. “Mine”, “Book”, and “Best Behavior” comprise one of the best opening set of songs on any LP of the year, bursting with the energy of Blondie during their disco-punk era. Like that legendary band, the Brooklyn-based quintet tackle social conformity head-on. “Hey why don’t you come down here and laugh at me like a real human!”, Gammill hollers to her social detractors on “Book”. On the groovy and funky “Dog”, Gammill again demands to be as loved by another as they are to their pets. “You should have loved me like that dog!”, she exclaims. But how would she and her band-mates feel if fans followed them like a dog? Gustaf, after all, are anything but ordinary.

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Hand Habits – Fun House (Saddle Creek Records / Milk! Records)

Two words have long defined Meg Duffy’s project Hand Habits – crushing intimacy. That is, they have repeatedly created art that is crippling in its effect yet beautiful to behold. And Fun House is Duffy at the height of their powers. The album features the familiar, intimate folk songs of Duffy’s past albums, which showcase their gorgeous vocals and tremendous songwriting. “Just to Hear You”, featuring Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas, is a graceful ballad of sudden independence, “No Differences” is an immersive and intricate portrait of one’s duality”, and “Clean Air” is a heartbreaker like no one.  

Fun House also sees Duffy extending themselves. “Aquamarine” is a surprisingly dreamy, synth-pop number made either for dance floors or idle afternoons. Opener “More Than Love” is a stunning, slow-building folk-rocker that at its apex is rapturous. On “Gold/Rust”, the song commences very calmly before the dam breaks and a flood of emotion and instrumental swells are unleashed. The lasting impact, though, is and has always been Duffy’s songwriting. “What you need is what you have / She reminds me that I still need time / That it’s all gotta change / That it’s all behind me now”, they movingly sing on “Control”. Their words reveal an understanding that while one can change, they can still be true to themselves and those they love. In the process, they can grow and still dazzle the mind, as Duffy has done once again. 

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Iceage – Seek Shelter (Mexican Summer)

From the opening refrain of “Shelter Song” that features strings and a Noel Gallagher-like chord progression, it becomes immediately apparent that Seek Shelter was going to be different. The searing, emotional broodiness that made Iceage the best post-punk band of the past decade has been set aside. In its place is a nostalgic sound – a Brit-pop opus that boomed bigger and bolder than anything Oasis and The Verve had created. And it is spectacular. The dark spaces that Elias Bender Rønnenfelt (vocals/lyrics), Jakob Tvilling Pless (bass), Johan Surballe Wieth (guitar), Casper Morilla (guitar), and Dan Kjær Nielsen (drums) once occupied now illuminates with unexpected optimism. And this is not for just one song but an entire album, on which they channel legends in their prime.

“High & Hurt” is a stadium-sized anthem that recalls a peak-career U2 in sound and substance, as the band seek redemption and deliverance. The Bends-era Radiohead brims through “Love Kills”, the surging warmth of “Gold City” beckons of Travis and James, and the mournful “Dear Saint Cecilia” is Echo and The Bunnymen at their rollicking best. Then there is “Vendetta”, a song that bridges the Danish outfit’s grueling relentlessness and powerful songwriting with Stone Roses’ throbbing, methodical nature. While the tone is different, Seek Shelter in undeniable Iceage. It is mind-blowing in scope, intelligent in its words, and refreshing in its sound. It represents a band that continues to play by its own rules, popularity be damn.

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IDLES – Crawler (Partisan Records) 

If there is anything to be thankful for, it’s that IDLES is making music at this moment in time. There’s plenty to be angry and defiant about these days, and who better to channel that than the band that gave us Joy as an Act of Resistance. 

On their latest record, Crawler, the band of Joe Talbot (vocals), Mark Bowen (guitar, backing vocals), Slow Lee Kiernan (guitar), Dev Devonshire (bass, backing vocals), and Jon Beavis (drums) take an even heavier edge. The LP features plenty of hard hitters like “The Wheel”, “Stockholm Syndrome”, and “Crawl”. IDLES changes some things up, too, with a slow-dancer “The Beachland Ballroom” and the post-punk of “When The Lights Come On”. There’s also an incredibly stunning ambient piece in “Progress” that features Talbot’s voice fading in and out.

Crawler is quite a diverse record, especially looking back on their previous record, Ultra Mono. However, IDLES continue to build on their message of love, joy, respecting yourself, and recognizing the power in that.

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Indigo de Souza – Any Shape You Take (Saddle Creek Records)

Great, meaningful music is as dependable and comforting as a best friend. It can lift spirits, help overcome whatever struggles we confront, and even offer a bit of hope. This is Indigo De Souza, who, through her stellar sophomore album, Any Shape You Take, has emerged as the companion we all need in these tough times.

The LP is raw, emotional, and vibrant, as the Asheville-based artist uses various sonic palettes to paint her masterpieces. The dream-like whirlwind “Kill Me” addresses the emotional scarring associated with an abusive relationship while the hi-pop of “17” and the indie pop-rocker “Die/Cry” are reminders that we are never alone with De Souza around. She wraps her arms around us on the grungy “Real Pain” and “Bad Dream”, which bellow with the grit of the ‘90s yet are still consoling. The one song that captures De Souza’s altruism is “Hold U”, which beautifully celebrates our collective diversity and our individuality. “You are a good thing, I’ve noticed, I’ve seen it / And I want the best things for you”, she tells us. And we believe her because she has never let us down. She instead has always made us believe in ourselves.

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Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee (Dead Oceans)

Michelle Zauner was finally ready to create an album full of joy on Jubilee. Japanese Breakfast’s previous records were records of grief, heartbreak, and centered around the loss of her mother. It was finally time to celebrate all of the good things.

Right from “Paprika”, the opening track, Jubilee sounds triumphant. Brass and strings add to that sound as Zauner sings of the rush she gets when strangers listen to her songs. “Be Sweet” is just an all out jam of a song, and incredibly catchy. Zauner sings of billionaires destroying the world on the witty “Savage Good Boy”. “Posing In Bondage” is striking, from its electronics, sampled vocals adding to the song’s already ethereal feel. “Tactics” is a gorgeous, slow dance ballad that sets up the record’s striking closer “Posing for Cars”. Each song is full of heart, and Zauner set out to bring these songs to life, whether it meant loading “Paprika” with everything she could, to trusting those around her to bring “Slide Tackle” to life. But more importantly, Jubilee is the celebration of a young artist finding her way through this complicated world. 

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The Joy Formidable – Into the Blue (Enci Records / Full Time Hobby / Soundly Distro) 

The Joy Formidable have been an interesting band to watch for the last decade. Their debut LP seemed to position them to break out as one of the greatest rock bands of the 2010s. That breakout never really came, but what did come was a steady stream of great records and an ever expanding sound. 

Their latest record, Into the Blue, is a defiant statement that they will not fade into indie-rock obscurity. The trio will instead find that roar that made them unstoppable in those early years. A full-throttle attack defines tracks like “Into The Blue”, “Sevier”, and “Interval”. Tons of killer riffs are to be found, including on the intense “Gotta Feed My Dog”. When the record gets to “Back to Nothing”, the band make their most defiant statement yet with one of their greatest songs. Into The Blue is not a comeback record, as they haven’t gone anywhere. It, however, feels like a triumphant and wholehearted embrace of what made them such a notable band ten years ago as well as one of the most consistent bands of the 2010s.

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Julien Baker – Little Oblivions (Matador Records) 

Julien Baker’s first two records featured mostly just her and her guitar. Her lyricism was front and center, and among some of the most honest, emotional, and heavy lyrics we’ve heard. 

On Little Oblivions, Baker expands her sound. Right from the first moments of “Hardline”, a haunting synth comes in and eventually drums. They give way to bring Baker’s lyrics into focus, and she sings about the difference between medicine and poison. It’s a sign of things to come from the record. These tracks are bigger, louder, and more intense, but they still have the qualities that drew us all to Sprained Ankle. Not to say there aren’t intimate moments, as songs like “Crying Wolf”, “Song in E”, and “Favor” bring listeners in closer. But, where Little Oblivions shines is how its bit moments feel so much bigger when juxtaposed with those first two records. It’s Baker’s most ambitious record yet, and it’s incredible.

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Lightning Bug – A Color of the Sky (Fat Possum Records) 

On their first two records, Lightning Bug seemed to be searching for a sound – lo-fi at times but always seeming to carry a dreamy layer that was instantly intriguing. It seemed as though with a little more polish, the music of Audrey Kang, Kevin Copeland, Logan Miley, Dane Hagen and Vincent Puleo would truly be able to shine.

On their third record, A Color of the Sky, everything comes together for Lightning Bug. A Color of the Sky is a perfectly crafted record, starting with the gorgeous opener, “The Return”. There’s shoegaze influence with songs like “The Right Thing Is Hard To Do” and the incredible “Song of the Bell”. Then there are times where Lightning Bug create truly stunning music, like “Wings of Desire”, that mostly features just Kang’s voice and a fingerpicked guitar, occasionally interrupted by some huge swells of lush synth and woodwinds. There’s even a great instrumental interlude about halfway through, “The Chase”, which breaks the album up nicely. The second half of the record goes into some wonderful folky territory, from the brief “Reprise” to the closer, the gorgeous “The Flash”. If this is the start of the band’s new chapter, the world just might have its next great band.

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Lucy Dacus – Home Video (Matador Records) 

There are few songwriters who can make such personal moments as relatable as Lucy Dacus can. Dacus’ first two records proved this, but there’s a whole new level to it on Home Video.

Kicking things off with the Springsteen-esque “Hot & Heavy”, Dacus wrestles with feelings about a former lover. Dacus’ upbringing was religious and caused her to supress certain parts of herself, which can be heard on songs like “First Time” and “VBS” (short for Vacation Bible School). The centerpiece of the record is the intense “Thumbs”. Dacus sings of an encounter with a friend and their absent father. She laments on ways she would defend her companion from him, including pressing her thumbs into his eyes. “Brando” is another one of Dacus’ great tracks with her wit on full display, as she lays in on a film snob who saw Dacus as acting a part in his life. He thinks he’s Marlon Brando, but Dacus assures him “you’re not even close”. Home Video is a perfect example of what makes Dacus’ songwriting great, as she paints vivid pictures of moments in someone else’s life. And it all feels just like popping in those old VHS tapes.

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Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World (Luminelle Recordings) 

Mica Tenenbaum (songwriting/vocals) and Matthew Lewin (songwriting/vocals/production) probably didn’t expect their project Magdalena Bay to exist a few years ago. The duo, after all, started in a prog-rock band before splitting to do their own thing. And that thing is embracing pop and creating something incredible with Mercurial World.

A concept album at heart, Magdalena Bay create their own universe on Mercurial World. Beginning with “The End” and ending with “The Beginning”, the band immediately show their quirky amount of wit. In between those tracks are some of the year’s greatest grooves, most notably the one-two punch of “Dawning of The Season”, and “Secrets (Your Fire)”. While a lot of the album feels like it’s in a nostalgic haze, there are plenty of modern sounding tracks, such as “Something for 2” and “Dreamcatching” which have a deep synth and incredible drum programming. “Domino” is a wild ride, almost feeling like a shoegaze track at times, and it adds a whole new dynamic to the record. The record comes to close with “The Beginning”, an incredibly fun track that almost seamlessly loops back into “The End” at the beginning of the record. Mercurial World is so expertly constructed and an incredibly well thought out record.

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Makthaverskan – För Allting (Run for Cover Records)

För Allting, the fourth album from Makthaverskan, starts unexpectedly. A band known for rousing shoegaze / Scandi-gaze greets listeners with a peaceful, ambient intro in “(-)”, which seems more appropriate for a wake than a concert hall. The opener, though, is just a distraction, as it bleeds into the euphoric “This Time”. This is the world that Maja Milner (vocals), Hugo Randulv (guitar), Per Svensson (guitar), Andreas “Palle” Wettmark (drums), and Irma Krook (bass) introduced and mastered more than thirteen years ago.

For the next 35 minutes, the Gothenburg-based quintet take listeners on an extravagant ride. För Allting is filled with glorious heights, like the dizzying “Tomorrow”, the driving “All I’ve Ever Wanted To Say”, and the shimmering “These Walls”. It possesses incredibly dazzling moments with the dream-like “För Allting” and the gorgeous dreamgaze of “Closer”. Desperation also pierces through in the form of the desert-like suspense of “Ten Days” and the blistering Gothgaze of “Caress”. Even when the band show their bleakest colors, as they do on “Lova”, they still find a way to exhilarate and awe, which is what they’ve been doing since Day 1. 

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Maple Glider – To Enjoy is the Only Thing (Pieater / Partisan Records)

Tori Zietsch’s debut record as Maple Glider is one of the year’s most beautiful records. To Enjoy is the Only Thing is full of emotionally charged songs, stemming from loss. It’s not just the end of a relationship, but an attempt to escape her religious upbringing and finding something more. Each song has a warmth with Zietsch’s voice being the fire and the accompanied by gorgeous harmonies and guitar being the oxygen that feeds her. There are huge songs like “Swimming” that do so much with just a little. There are gorgeous acoustic tracks like “Baby Tiger”, a song about feeling more of a connection to her cat pawing at the door rather than the person she was sharing her bed with. To Enjoy Is The Only Thing is full of emotional, intimate, and honest moments like those, and it packs an incredible punch as a result.

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Marissa Nadler – The Path of the Clouds (Sacred Bones Records / Bella Union)

Since the release of her eponymous debut album ten years ago, Marissa Nadler‘s music has been consistently full of contrasts. It can be beautiful yet haunting, stark and brooding yet breathtaking to hear. Her gorgeous and ghostly voice, meanwhile, tells spine-tingling stories. While each of her LPs have been remarkable, The Path of the Clouds represents Nadler at the height of her artistry. 

Inspired by binge-watching Unsolved Mysteries during the lockdowns, Nadler adopts a wider-screen sound to capture the surrealism of the stories. The bleakness remains, but it is expressed through the prism of a vintage camera. The chilling “Bessie Did You Make It”, the captivating “Couldn’t Have Done The Killing”, the trembling aquatic feeling of “If I Could Breathe Underwater”, and the shoegaze-inflicted “Well Something You Just Can’t Say” exemplify Nadler’s bolder approach and vivid storytelling. Even the tranquil “Elegy” possesses an uneasy mysticism while the Mazzy Starr-like “From Vapor to Stardust” concerns the skeletons that exist in every closet. Although Nadler’s tales are not for the faint of heart, her music is bold and complex, stirring emotions and imaginations. As she demonstrates again on The Path of the Clouds, the Boston-based singer-songwriter is in a class all her own.

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Middle Kids – Today We’re the Greatest (Domino Recording Co.) 

Middle Kids’ 2018 debut, Lost Friends, was an incredible introduction to the trio of Hannah Joy (vocals, guitar, piano), Tim Fitz (bass, production), and Harry Day (drums). It was an album of great heights, personal moments, and an indication of a promising new band.

On Today We’re the Greatest, their sophomore record, Middle Kids continue to build on what made Lost Friends such a strong debut. They have also refined their sound into something much bigger. Some songs are rooted in folk: “Bad Neighbors” features one of the album’s most striking vocal performances, and “Golden Star” is just a complete knockout of a track. There are also some more upbeat tracks, like “R U 4 Me?” and the infectious “I Don’t Care”. Where Middle Kids and this album thrive, are where they blur the lines between genres. “Questions” transitioning from a slow track with just some percussion into an absolute monster is one of the most cathartic releases on any album this year. With repeated listens, it’s easy to understand why Today We’re the Greatest was bestowed the ARIA prize for best Australian Rock Album. 

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Mogwai – As the Love Continues (Temporary Residence Ltd. / Rock Action Records) 

Rare is it for a band with more than 25 years of experience to remain relevant. Younger, hungrier artists tend to overtake, leaving the veterans playing catch-up. This is not the case for Scottish post-rockers Mogwai, who instead have grown like a fine wine – they only get better with age and their tenth album, As the Love Continues, is among Stuart Braithwaite (guitar), John Cummings (guitar), Barry Burns (guitar, keys), Dominic Aitchison (bass), and Martin Bulloch’s (drums) very best.

Like their previous endeavours, As the Love Continues induces great introspection and escapism, which happens immediately on the aptly-titled “To the Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth”. The ride continues through the spatial “Here We, Here We, Here We Go Forever”, the epic “Drive the Nail”, and otherworldly “Dry Fantasy”. The LP, however, is not an ordinary Mogwai output because occasionally an unfamiliar voice emerges. While the Scottish veterans have invited guest vocalists to sing, Braithwaite does the duties. His soft delivery on “Ritchie Sacramento” adds greater intimacy and urgency to this cosmic post-rock number about the oncoming apocalypse. Despite the grim forecast, a comfort emerges because of who are piloting this spacecraft. We know that even in the face of oblivion Mogwai will guide us to the light.

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Molly Burch – Romantic Images (Captured Tracks) 

Molly Burch is a genuine throwback. Evoking images of smoky Jazz bars with her voice, Burch has created something special over her last few albums. While the music feels like it could be decades old, Burch’s lyrics feel much more relevant and modern than the sounds that accompany them.

On Romantic Images, Burch expands her sound quite a bit. The album’s opener “Control” keeps a lot of those qualities that drew us into Burch’s first records, with mostly just her on piano. Where things kick off is “Games”, which features a killer bass groove and some wonderful synthesizer. There are a bunch of great grooves throughout. “Took A Minute” and the Wild Nothing collaboration “Emotion” are just infectious and fun sounding. “Heart of Gold” and “New Beginning” feel like a bridge between Burch’s first records and those more ’80s inspired tracks.

As the title suggests, Romantic Images is full of love songs, but the new sounds Burch embraces are what intensify our love for this heart-stirring album.

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Nana Yamato – Before Sunrise (Dull Tools / Big Love) 

BIG LOVE RECORDS is one of the coolest spots for any music fan in Harajuku, Tokyo. Many albums on this list are available there, so it’s not your typical big box store. For someone from a rural town, like Nana Yamato, it could be cultural overload. After relocating to Tokyo and working at the shop, Yamato found inspiration in music from the other side of the world, and at just 20 years old, she is signed to Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts’ label, Dull Tools.

On her debut record, Before Sunrise, Yamato takes those influences and tells her own story. Synth and drum machine ease the listener in with “Do You Wanna”, a song about the realizations when one grows older. It gives way to a great indie-guitar track “If”, and Yamato keeps that type of variation throughout the record. “Burning Desire” rocks but with some great synth horns infused. The dreamy “Before Sunrise” and the shoegaze-influenced “The Day Song” add a spellbinding effect to this diverse album. “Gaito”, meanwhile, was inspired by Yamato’s bewilderment towards Japanese Idol music and its impact on her classmates. 

The artistry of Yamato doesn’t stop at her music, as she also created some great music videos to go with many of the songs on Before Sunrise. Self-produced and simple, Yamato created these mostly in her bedroom during the height of the pandemic in Tokyo. The “Gaito” video is worth viewing, as it shows her emulating a dance from J-pop Idols but set to the very minimalistic instrumental of the song.

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Nation of Language – A Way Forward (PIAS Recordings)

Rare it is for a band to deliver two remarkable albums in consecutive years because the process to make great art is often long and exhausting. And yet, Aidan Noéll (synth), Michael Sue-Poi (bass, guitar), and Ian Devaney (vocal, synth, guitar) have accomplished this. Following 2020’s synth-pop / new-wave masterpiece, Introduction, Presence, the Brooklyn-based trio find new ways to turn the music of OMD, New Order, and Flock of Dimes into a complex and extraordinary exhibition on A Way Forward.

Nation of Language’s sophomore album is perfection. Every song is exquisitely arranged and never stationary. Instead, the music constantly shifts as does Devaney’s tingling baritone, which heightens the urgency, desperation, and emotion. The melancholic “Miranda”, for instance, may sound like a delicate lullaby, but when the bridge arrives all will be singing with Devaney: “But I promise I could wait by the water there / I swear, if that’s what you wanted / But that’s not what I’ve found”.

Or they will be dancing, doing herky-jerky moves with which Devaney has now become associated. The pulsing “Grey Commute”, the bouncing “Fractured Mind”, and the scintillating “Across That Fine Line” induce involuntary gestures. Meanwhile, the futuristic haze that is “In Manhattan”, the sublime “Wounds of Love”, and the beautifully intimate “A Word & A Wave” cause one to pause and contemplate. They cause us to reflect on what was and what is to come because to move forward requires understanding and respecting the past. And this is how Nation of Language has arrived as arguably the best band in all music today with arguably 2021’s most outstanding LP.

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Olivia Kaplan – Tonight Turns to Nothing (Topshelf Records) 

There’s something about Olivia Kaplan’s debut LP, Tonight Turns to Nothing that makes it feel like it’ll be something we’ll be talking about for years. Kaplan’s heartfelt and heartbreaking music has all of the ingredients to make her the next breakout star. This is obvious right from the first track, “Spill”, which is a journey in itself, starting out and ending in completely different places. Then there are songs like “Wrong” and “Seen By You”, which are full of magnetic energy. A change-of-pace comes in the form of the rock ‘n roll number, “Ghosts”. Even in the record’s more quiet moments, Kaplan shines with “Still Strangers”. 

Tonight Turns To Nothing is a fantastic, diverse record. While its guests, including Buck Meek (Big Thief), Jorge Balbi (Sharon Van Etten), and Alex Fischel (Spoon), help elevate the LP, Kaplan is the star. She is the energy and the light that makes the album move, enrapture, and amaze. A star in the making indeed. 

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Parquet Courts – Symphony for Life (Rough Trade Records)

Long are the days when Parquet Courts would release sub-90-second songs as they did with their first two album, American Specialities and Light Up Gold. Instead, Andrew Savage (vocals/guitar), Austin Brown (vocals/guitar), Sean Yeaton (bass), and Max Savage (drums) have polished their sound while their songs are double and even triple in length. While some things have changed, the quartet’s shapeshifting ways and observant songwriting remain, and they come to the fore on Sympathy for Life.

The Brooklyn-based band’s latest album is a microcosm of their career. Smooth, psych grooves tickle on “Plant Life”, which then leads into the Devo-inspired synth-rock “Application/Apparatus” and the old-school garage-rocker, “Homo Sapien”. Even ‘60s psychedelic funk filters through “Zoom Out”, on which the band sing about one extended trip. Parquet Courts, however, are a band about statements. On “Just Shadows”, for instance, the band find inspiration in late-‘60s folk-rock to comment on the chaos consuming the US in June 2020. Meanwhile, the band bust a groove or two on the vibrant “Walking at a Downtown Pace” and “Black Widow Spider”. On both tracks, they tackle the inanity of consumerism, where people try to act like the person they see in magazines, TikTok ads, and on film. Parquet Courts, though, hold true to who they are despite their rising popularity. This is why they can consistently surprise and remain at the top of their game.

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Red Ribbon – Planet X (Danger Collective Records)

An unrelenting pandemic, more severe weather systems, and a warming planet, is the Earth that we know about to disintegrate before eyes? While this theme is generally tackled on the big and little screens, Emma Danner masterfully contemplates this question on Red Ribbon’s sophomore album, Planet X.

Like any piece of art that examines the “what if”, Planet X is full of wonder and mystery, concern and hope, and memory and anticipation. The languid “Weight of Man” is the perfect opener to this existential exploration, as Danner bids adieu to Earth and humanity’s past. It leads into the trembling, psych-infused folk-rocker, “Way”, which feels like a slow ascent into space. Eventually, the song arrives at “Planet X”, which sounds like the featured song to a future episode of Killing Eve. It is full of beauty and suspense, much like this newfound home the heroine has arrived at. Despite the uncertainty of the unknown, Danner adds a bit of playfulness with “Sun”, on which she repeats, “I’m a fool to love you”, expressing her adoration to the fiery ball in the sky. While on “Renegade”, she addresses that no matter how far we travel, we can escape our troubles. If we do not learn from our mistakes and the lessons of the past, we are bound to repeat them, including on this new planet that should offer new beginnings.

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Sault – Nine (Forever Living Originals)

Enigmatic English collective Sault have operated under a cloud of mystery in their two-plus years of existence. Little is known about the group other than producer Inflo is at the helm and Cleo Sol and Kid Sister provide vocal support. Michael Kiwanuka, Laurette Josiah, and Little Simz are also known collaborators. And yet, the group have quickly emerged as one of the most influential and important bands in recent memory, as evidenced by Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) being listed on numerous “Best of” lists in 2020, including our own. Their follow-up, Nine, is equally a powerful statement of the world, particularly as racial tensions intensify, divisions and violence escalate, and chaos abounds.

Good luck trying to find Nine on any streaming service, as it had a lifespan of 99 days, with its last day being October 2nd. While it can only be heard if it was purchased, Sault’s fifth album has left a lasting impression. Trip hop, funk, jazz, blues, soul, R&B, and hip hop effortlessly are merged. The result are songs that are smooth and delicate (“Bitter Streets”), graceful yet crippling (“Alcohol” and “Light’s In Your Hands”), and gripping and tense (“London Gangs”, “Trap Life”). More importantly, each song tells the stories of Black people and their daily struggles. This is best captured on “Fear”, on which “the pain is real” is repeated. These four words represent the emotions, the hurt, and the fear of a people following the unnecessary deaths of Breyonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Atatiana Jefferson, and others at the hands of the police or vigilantes. And Sault represent what the music industry needs more of – bands willing to raise awareness, challenge the status quo, and incite us to contemplate what kind of planet we want to have.

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Shame – Drunk Tank Pink (Dead Oceans)

When comprising any year-end list, recency bias comes into play, and, therefore, it’s easy to forget about the albums that dropped early in the year. So when a long-player that was released the second week of the new year gets listed on any “Best of…” or “Favorites” compilation, it must be truly remarkable. Shame‘s Drunk Tank Pink, was not just an outstanding output, but it also set the baseline by which all other albums were measured. Insightful, intelligent, and explosive, the post-punk / art-punk outfit brilliantly capture their and the world’s state of mind in an era of unrelenting chaos.

While the album launches one uppercut after another, Eddie Green, Charlie Forbes, Josh Finerty, Sean Coyle-Smith, and Charlie Steen’s lives are less exciting. “Born in Luton”, “Human, A Minute”, and the menacing “Snow Day” capture the growing destitution of their home and situation. Anxiety and the increasing claustrophobia of life are shared on the propulsive “Harsh Degrees”, the art-punk delight “Nigel Hitter”, “Alphabet”, and “Good Dog”.

Despite the turmoil that exists in their minds and outside the comforts of their little flat, Shame find a bit of hope. With a hint of Hunter S. Thompson, Steen sings on “Station Wagon”: “Look, look up there / There’s something in that cloud / We’ve all seen it before / A constant vapor of light”. These words are important reminders that the smallest things in life can be motivating and rewarding. That no matter how loud and mind-blowing something sounds, the messages and stories conveyed are what leave lasting impacts.

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Slothrust – Parallel Timeline (Dangerbird Records) 

Over the course of their career, Slothrust, the project of Leah Wellbaum (vocals, guitar) along with Will Gorin (drums), have gained a reputation for their heavy grunge riffs and a musical proficiency to be expected from former Jazz music students. 

On Parallel Timeline, Slothrust refuse to be pigeonholed. Lush synth and harmonies along with haunting vocals define the opening moments of the record on “Cranium”. While tracks like “Strange Astrology” and “Waiting” show a softer side to their sound, Wellbaum’s lyricism continues to be as intense and unique as ever. There are, however, still some vintage rippin’ bangers on Parallel Timeline. “Once More For The Ocean” has some killer riffage right out of the gate. There’s even a guest appearance from Lzzy Hale on “The Next Curse”, and that goes exactly as you’d expect.

Parallel Timeline has a lot of what makes Slothrust special: Wellbaum still rips some great solos, her lyrics are still thought provoking, and Gorin’s drumming is still pristine. They’ve added so much more to their sound, however, which has given Wellbaum a much more versatile canvas for her words.

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Snail Mail – Valentine (Matador Records) 

Lindsey Jordan’s rise to one of indie’s finest songwriters didn’t come without its obstacles. After releasing the first Snail Mail record, Lush, in 2018, Jordan found herself overwhelmed by her newfound fame and the social interactions that came with it. Eventually, those interactions wore on Jordan, leading to a stint in rehab.

On Valentine, Jordan channels those problems and creates one of the year’s most engaging records. For anyone who’s been along for the ride to get to Valentine, it’s obvious how far Jordan’s ability as a songwriter has come – from the shifting tone of the lyrics to the more mature and intricate instrumentals. Valentine is not a guitar-led indie record. Instead, it’s a diverse one with a lot more electronics, synth, and even a bit of autotune. The title track, “Valentine”, mixes a lot of these new sounds with a distinctively Snail Mail chorus. Then there’s the groovy “Ben Franklin”, which sets a great foundation for Jordan to expand on her vocal range. Valentine is a big evolution in Snail Mail’s sound and a confident one at that.

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Squirrel Flower – Planet (i) (Polyvinyl Record Co. / Full Time Hobby) 

We’ve touted Squirrel Flower as the next big thing and for good reason. Drawing qualities reminiscent of legends ranging from the ’90s best alternative songwriters to today’s biggest stars, Ella Williams brings all that and more to the table with Planet (i).

Where artists in her shoes may go for a more polished approach, Squirrel Flower leverage loud, distorted, and rough moments against more delicate ones. Perhaps no song exemplifies it more than “Big Beast”, which starts out as a lo-fi acoustic track before exploding into something much, much bigger. The entire album always feel like it’s moments away from things like that, even in the middle of the much slower second side. The truly beautiful “To Be Forgotten” is completely uprooted with a huge sound. This time, it’s not distorted but full of lush harmonies and reverbed guitar. With one last gasp, Williams creates a wall of sound on “Night” before finally closing the record with the stunning “Starshine”.

Planet (i) is such a dynamic record. It’s full of highs and lows, has its moments of otherworldly beauty, and instances of harsh distortion. It’s a record that feels completely unrestricted, and it feels alive because of it.

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Still Corners – The Last Exit (Wrecking Light Records)

In 2013 when Still Corners released “The Trip”, they had a vision of creating a series of linked songs over time, and ‘The Road Trilogy’ was born. It continued in 2018 when “The Message” was unveiled and “completed” with 2021’s “The Last Exit”. Visions of dusty highways, hazy sunsets, and a lonely wanderer crossing the Mojave Desert emerge from the three tracks, but the story felt incomplete. So instead of waiting a few more years to reveal the next chapter, Tessa Murray and Greg Hughes wrote ten additional songs and made The Last Exit their fifth album.

Startling and dazzling in its effect, The Last Exit is both an LP made for long road trips and a deep exploration into one’s psyche. Desert-noir and dreamy, psych-infused dream-pop provide the canvas to Murray’s gripping stories of self-discovery (“White Sands”, “Mystery Road”), vulnerability (“Old Arcade”, “A Kiss Before Dying”), and abandonment and isolation (“Crying”, “Static”). This road that the London-based duo paved, however, leads back to “The Last Exit”. It is the destination that Murray’s endless journey concludes, where the only choice available is for her to fade away. The image is provocative, as it denotes not finality but rather a new start in another place. Maybe there, she can find what she’s been seeking for eight years, which is when it all started with an innocent trip.

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Strand of Oaks – In Heaven (Galacticana / Thirty Tigers)

Strand of Oaks frontman Tim Showalter has the word “SURVIVE” tattooed in large block letters on his right forearm. The word is a reminder that even the darkest, most painful times can be overcome. Anyone who has endured the loss of a loved one – whether human or animal – understands the unrelenting pain. But instead of wallowing in despair, the Texas-based artist chooses to focus on the positive memories and opportunity, offering unity and hope on In Heaven.

Showalter bears his heart on each of the 11 tracks, which are founded on the ‘80s rock ‘n roll he grew up listening to in Goshen, Indiana. ”I believe that ecstasy happens when we all get together”, Showalter sings on the Big Star-esque opener, “Galacticana”. The steely soft-rock of “Sunbathers” is an ode to childhood daydreams; the Americana-touched “Somewhere in Chicago” is a stunning tribute to the late John Prine; and the brooding rocker “Carbon” offers a brilliant take on the typical cat-and-mouse game. Even in the face of betrayal, as heard on the sombre “Hurry”, Showalter still identifies possibilities to move forward. “Jimi & Sam”, however, is where Showalter’s spirit shines, as he shares his belief that his beloved cat Sam has become friends and tending shows with the great Jimi Hendrix. It’s a great vision to paint and takes an exceptional human being to do so.

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TORRES – Thirstier (Merge Records) 

On her 2020 record, Silver Tongue, TORRES’ Mackenzie Scott was reeling from being dropped by her record label. It was a defiant statement that she would not be held down by grief, love, or a loss of motivation. 

On Thirstier, Mackenzie Scott found something else to sing about: joy. The result is an album that sounds like a completely different TORRES than what we’re used to. Upbeat at times, especially on the fantastic “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes in My Head”, Scott celebrates the little things in life. There’s the stunning “Big Leap”, a song about an incident where her father nearly lost his life. There’s great rockers like “Hug From a Dinosaur”. For an artist who’s always pushed boundaries and bared so much of herself through her music, THIRSTIER may be Scott at her most vulnerable.

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Trace Mountains – House of Confusion (Lame-O Records) 

Trace Mountains’ 2020 record, Lost in the Country, was one of the year’s best records. It was a portrait of America from within its transitional space. Whether it be a road trip across the country, or a moment before a show, Dave Benton took these small moments and turned them into something much bigger.

House of Confusion is a perfect follow-up to Lost in the Country. 2020 was a year of upheaval for so many, including Benton, who lost his job and also the ability to tour. That uncertainty and feeling of hopelessness is a common theme throughout House of Confusion. The record is full of those sounds that make Trace Mountains such a joy to listen to, its folk roots and Benton’s conversational voice keep listeners engaged throughout. There are plenty of pretty musical moments. “Seen It Coming” has some wonderful pedal steel, as Benton’s voice goes wordless, just humming along. “America” continues a lot of the themes on their previous records. But with 2020 in hindsight, Benton searches for the America he’s heard about in stories. There’s plenty to love on House of Confusion, from the great guitar work on “Eyes on the Road” to the charm of “IDK” and “The Moon”. They are comprise another fine Trace Mountains record.

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W.H. Lung – Vanities (Melodic Records)

In their short existence as a band, W.H. Lung refuse to be stationary. Their 2019 debut LP, Incidental Music, was a kaleidoscope of ’70s krautrock, ’80s synth-pop, and 2010 art-rock. It was sensational. So how does a young band top such an ingenious output? They push the limits even further, adding coldwave, post-punk, new wave, and psych-disco to the mix in order to create a seductive and cathartic ensemble. The result is Vanities, which could be the sole album endlessly spinning at a secretive club in the ’80s.

Whereas opener “Calm Down” seduces, the kaleidoscope that is “Gd Tym” and the space-disco “Pearl in the Palm” exhilarate. While the dazzling “Ways of Seeing” and sublime “ARPi” offer cool reprieves, “Showstopper” is brooding yet mesmerizing. Meanwhile, “Figure with Flowers”, “Somebody Like”, and “Kaya” are euphoria on the dance floor, simultaneously energizing and emotionally gripping. Through these various prisms, Tom Sharkett (guitar), Joe Evans (vocals), Hannah Peace (synths, vocals), Chris Mulligan (bass, synths), and Alex Mercer Main (drums) can unchain themselves from the people and events that hold them down. They are, as they do to us, able to move on and be who they choose to be. They can find liberation.

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The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore (Atlantic Records)

The War on Drugs do not stray too far from the vintage, ’80s rock approach that they’ve mastered over the course of 16+ years and now includes five albums. Why should they deviate far from a sound that is perfect? Why should they separate themselves from an approach, as heard on I Don’t Live Here Anymore, that sounds refreshing in an era dominated by synths, computers, and drum machines?

The band’s fifth album is more like therapy than entertainment, and this statement has dual meanings. For listeners, the pristine guitar lines and the clean rhythms are an escape from the noise. Rarely do any of the songs escalate into rousing epic climaxes, yet the emotion that comes from Adam Granduciel’s soothing voice touches deeply, such as on “Living Proof”, “Rings Around My Father’s Eye”, and “Old Skin”. Even when Granduciel and band-mates Anthony LaMarca (guitar), David Hartley (bass), Robbie Bennett (keys), Nohn Natchez (keys, saxophone), and Charlie Hall (drums) pick up the pace, as they do on “Harmonia’s Dream” and “Victim”, an intimacy exists. This is due to Granduciel’s superb songwriting and heartfelt delivery. This album, too, is therapy for the band’s front-man, as changes in his life have led him to a lonely road. He, however, is not alone as he chooses to bring us alongside, sharing his brittle stories in poetic ways like Bob Dylan once did.

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The Weather Station – Ignorance (Fat Possum / Next Door Records)

Since releasing her debut album, The Line, as The Weather Station in 2009, Tamara Lindeman has established herself as one of Canada’s finest singer-songwriters. With her traditional folk sound, comparisons to Joni Mitchell abound, yet the Toronto-based artist still hovered below the radar. She persisted, releasing another three albums of impeccable storytelling. Hints of a transformation, however, were heard on her self-titled fourth album, as Lindeman surrounded herself with a band and dabbled with pop signatures. This effort laid the groundwork for Ignorance, which is her well-deserved and well-earned breakthrough.

With the support of a full band, Lindeman has crafted a remarkable album that is fuller and richer in sound, which is a mixture of jazzy, art-rock, chamber-pop, and, of course, folk. She does this without compromising the lyrical poignancy that has long characterized her work. “Robber” is riveting and mysterious, as Lindeman describes capitalism as a stranger wanting to take from you and you from it. The lovely “Parking Lot” is a confession of stage fright, which in turn is an analogy to one’s lingering self-doubt. An urgency builds on the complex “Atlantic”, as Lindeman describes how humanity’s greed comes at the expense of sustainability.

She delivers her most dazzling number in “Heart”, on which she describes how falling in love can be a chore. Love is also about choices. “I can show myself out / Walk out in the city”, her lush voice sings with a touch of defiance and confidence. These lyrics and Lindeman’s deliver also capture her transformation, where she has stepped outside her comfort zone and challenged herself. The result is one of the most sensational albums of the past ten years.

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Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend (Dirty Hit)

Three albums of pure perfection. How many bands can say this? Not even the great Radiohead can make such a claim, but Wolf Alice can. Their smashing debut LP, My Love Is Cool, introduced the world to four young Brits who refused to be pigeonholed into a single genre. Whether it was gritty ’90s grunge, blissful indie-folk, fiery alt-rock, or soaring pop, they masterfully performed them all. Wolf Alice’s sophomore full-length, Visions of a Life, was similarly diverse, but the quartet extended themselves into shoegaze, ’70s pop, post-punk, and cosmic dream-folk. To expect them to become one-dimensional at the height of their powers would be foolhardy because Ellie Rowsell, Joff Oddie, Theo Ellis, and Joel Amey did not become the UK’s biggest indie band by playing it safe. Instead, Blue Weekend is yet another unpredictable wonderland of sound.

Wolf Alice’s third album commences with plenty of theater, where the first three songs – “The Beach”, “Delicious Things”, and “Lipstick On The Glass” – reach gorgeous euphoric levels. At the center of it all is Roswell’s powerful voice, which is fuller, richer, and more stunning than it has ever been. A similar dramatic tone cuts through the album’s centerpiece, “The Last Man On Earth”, which comes across as an ode to Bowie and all the big dreamers. In between, there is fire and brimstone (the electrifying electro-pop-rocker “Smile” and the punk-ish “Play the Greatest Hits”), playful epics (the lithe pop-turned-shoegaze ditty “Feeling Myself”), and eloquent ballads (“No Hard Feelings”, “Safe From Heartbreak (if I never fall in love)”). Every song is executed perfectly. As such, building on what we said back in 2017, Blue Weekend cements Wolf Alice’s legacy as THE band of their generation.

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Yung – Ongoing Dispute (PNKSLM Recordings)

With arguably the greatest post-punk band of the past decade moving in a new direction, another Danish band emerges to take their place. As Iceage add a new chapter to their legacy, Yung seek to establish themselves as indie heavyweights. The quartet of Mikkel Holm Silkjær, Tobias Guldborg Tarp, Frederik Nybo Veile, and Emil Zethsen position themselves to be contenders to Iceage’s throne on their superb sophomore album, Ongoing Dispute.

Like their countrymen, Yung’s music is cathartic and at times stark or explosive. Their stories, meanwhile, are brilliantly conceived yet frighteningly real, as they document the ongoing power struggles of daily life. The propulsive energy in “Autobiography” represents one person’s disgust with his friend’s self-absorbed ways while the melodic fury in “Progress” is one’s march against consumerism. On the surging noise-rocker “Above Water”, Yung tackle the misogyny that governs our societies while celebrating the women who refuse to conform. They take a different spin on this theme on the raging “Such a Man”, sharing a tale of a stoic male whose sole mechanism to cope with failure is to inflict harm on himself. For all the problems around us, the band still seek to live another day, which is articulated in dazzling fashion on “Friends on Ice”. They seek to live in a world where power is meaningless and where we can move forward together as one. That is a goal for all of us to achieve.

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