Since I included just 20 of my favorite releases for 2020, I figured why not keep the trend going and this time around feature 21 from 2021. As always, I found it rather tough to narrow down this list, which originally started at well over 50 and probably closer to 100 to be honest. Some of these blurbs you may recognize from TU’s collective top 50 albums from the year, but I figured, if it ain’t broke, why try fixing it? So, without further ado, here are my albums of the year for 2021.
21. Aly & AJ – a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun
2021 gifted us with Aly & AJ’s first studio album in fourteen years. Heavily influenced by the music of the 1960s and 1970s, A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun is chock full of fun, upbeat tunes both warm and welcoming, almost making us forget that the California duo was gone for so long.
20. The Maine – XOXO: From Love & Anxiety in Real Time
I was initially underwhelmed by the lead single from The Maine’s latest effort, but the more I listened to “Sticky,” the more I realized how much of an earworm it is. Just take it from the title of the song. Much of the album itself follows in this same vein, and although they will likely never top their 2019 opus (and my album of the year that year) You Are OK, XOXO: From Love & Anxiety in Real Time still offers up a lot of solidly catchy, radio-friendly rock.
19. Citizen – Life in Your Glass World
Toledo’s titans of emo returned with their first LP in nearly four years, and it was well worth the wait. Life in Your Glass World is easily Citizen’s strongest record to date, with many standouts and very few low points. It feels just nostalgic enough while still staying fresh enough to keep things from being monotonous.
18. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue
Perhaps the heaviest album released throughout 2021, and certainly the heaviest album on this list, the long-awaited debut from British Columbia metallers Spiritbox wowed critics on an almost universal level. Just take fellow TU writer Mark McConville’s own review, for instance. What I personally enjoy about Eternal Blue so much is the wall of sound throughout, even on the more melodic moments, in addition to the often industrial-laden grooves.
17. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
Having departed from the minimalistic acoustic alt folk of her first two albums, Julien Baker takes on several different sounds and styles with the diverse Little Oblivions. Not only that, but Baker produced the entire record herself, in addition to handling nearly all of its instrumentation. As if that’s not enough, Baker continues tackling tough topics lyrically, resulting in what is easily the Tennessean singer-songwriter’s most ambitious effort yet.
16. Foo Fighters – Medicine at Midnight
Speaking of “most ambitious effort yet,” Dave Grohl and company accomplish just that with their tenth full-length and what is essentially a “dance album” from the long-time alt. rockers. It feels like a gutsy move from the band everyone praises for anthemic arena rock charts like “Everlong” and “Best of You,” but anyone who truly knows the Foo Fighters knows that there’s far more to their music than just the hits, Medicine at Midnight included. It is markedly unlike anything they have ever done before, while still somehow possessing that undeniable Foos sound.
15. HalfNoise – Motif
While 2020 brought us the debut effort from Nick Aranda under his Vacay Nick moniker, 2021 saw Aranda teaming up with fellow Nashville native Zac Farro to help produce Farro’s newest album for his own project HalfNoise. On Motif, Farro expands on the groovier, more psychedelic nature of his 2019 LP Natural Disguise, and throws in dashes of pop rock, progressive, and even Baroque pop at certain points.
14. Lil Nas X – MONTERO
One thing that drives me crazy about Lil Nas X’s full-length debut is that much of it ends way too soon, with over a third of the album’s 15 tracks lasting less than two and a half minutes. Then again, maybe that’s part of his genius. Either way, MONTERO boasts stellar pop tunes that are refreshingly self-aware, proving that the Atlanta-based phenom is the furthest thing from a one hit wonder.
13. ’68 – Give One Take One
To me, this is everything ’68 has been trying to do in the eight years since the duo’s formation. Anything that was missing from their previous two LP’s has been carefully considered and incidentally improved upon with Give One Take One, leaving us with what my TU colleague Phil Hawkins called in his review “a rowdy and rambunctious ride that doesn’t let up.” It is effortlessly cohesive, intense even on its softest moments.
12. Switchfoot – interrobang
interrobang is probably the closest thing we have to a “political” Switchfoot album. Sure, they’ve had songs in the past that could be considered political, but their latest is a contemplative social commentary that as a whole reflects on much of the division rampant in the last couple of years, and does so with humility and grace. Meanwhile, the San Diego natives just continue to evolve sonically, which may help explain why they’ve stuck around for a quarter of a century.
11. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
For her fourth studio effort, Halsey teamed up with songwriter Greg Kurstin and alternative metallers Nine Inch Nails, the latter of which ended up producing the entire album. Not surprisingly, you can hear the industrial influence all over If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. It is synthy, noisy, and even grungy at certain points, which makes for a fascinating pair with the rallying feministic lyrical themes throughout.
10. FINNEAS – Optimist
Not only did Finneas play a huge part in creating Billie Eilish’s latest full-length, but he also created and released a full-length of his own, just two years after his debut EP Blood Harmony. Optimist is fun in some moments and somber in others, with music, lyrics, and production that are all top notch. It’s an extraordinary feat for someone who did it all himself; no wonder he’s up for Best New Artist at the upcoming Grammys.
9. Scarypoolparty – The Act of Forgiveness
Scarypoolparty had a rather prolific year in 2021, thanks in part to the massive, 21-track double album he released most recently. While there are a few filler tracks from The Act of Forgiveness that fall relatively flat, the vast majority of the record is stellar, making for an ambitious, expansive listen that does not grow tiresome.
8. Mastodon – Hushed and Grim
On their magnificent double album Hushed and Grim, Mastodon continue doing what they do best: blending sludge with progressive metal primarily, before throwing in nodes of stoner, psychedelia, and hard rock. Not only that, but they do it at perhaps the highest level they ever have. Even in nearly an hour and a half of music, there isn’t a single moment where I think to myself “they could have done without this,” and that is impressive.
7. Poppy – Flux
If I Disagree was a crushing amalgam of musical styles with countless twists and turns, than Flux is its dialed-in, more tempered distant cousin. Now, don’t hear this as me saying that Poppy has gone soft or become predictable; quite the contrary, in fact. On Flux the Boston native hones in on a more organic approach and dabbles in grunge, shoegaze, and dream pop. What we get is still intense and still Poppy, yet it’s more complete and arguably more accessible.
6. Noah Gundersen – A Pillar of Salt
Just two years removed from his most diverse record to date, Noah Gundersen is back with his fifth full-length, A Pillar of Salt, which takes many of the best elements from each of his previous efforts, making for what is perhaps his definitive album. It is the perfect starting point for anyone still behind the curve wondering “who the fuck is Noah Gundersen”—if you know, you know.
5. Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
Two years after unleashing her widely-lauded debut studio effort WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, Billie Eilish has somehow found a way to top it. Her follow-up Happier Than Ever shows Eilish’s tremendous growth already, both as a songwriter and as an artist. The entire record is phenomenal, with far more memorable highlights than its predecessor, in addition to being more complete from start to finish.
4. Joshua Powell – Skeleton Party
Joshua Powell continues to outdo themselves, with their latest LP Skeleton Party venturing further out into left field sonically. Yet it somehow still manages to feel more complete, in addition to boasting more standout individual moments. The end result is this searing, heady rock and roll record—a wild, stimulating journey that is unsettling in the best of ways.
3. Liily – TV or Not TV
On their jarring full-length debut, Liily packs in many different layers throughout, making it extremely hard to pin down under any particular “aesthetic.” It’s one of those albums that not only blows your mind when you first hear it, but also sticks with you, forcing you to listen to it again and again. With thought-provoking lyrics, unsettling sonic dispositions, and this domineering sense of intensity throughout, TV or Not TV is intentional from ideation to execution.
2. Black Country, New Road – For the first time
Every year there’s an artist who comes along and completely upends my sonic palate, and this year that artist for me was experimental rockers Black Country, New Road. The London-based seven-piece’s debut album, which was released to much critical acclaim back in February, is rambunctious and meandering. As fellow TU writer Cameron Carr so eloquently puts it: orchestration struggles against disintegration, with hooks that claw through the chaos. For the first time is a wild forty minute ride, but a ride well worth taking at least once, if for no other reason than to expand your horizons.
1. IDLES – CRAWLER
In the year or so since I first discovered IDLES, the British post-punk rockers have become firmly planted in the forefront of my mind, thanks to their noisy sonic nature and frontman Joe Talbot’s willingness to tackle difficult issues lyrically. Their newest full-length offering serves as an uplifting reminder that you are not alone, no matter what you’ve been through. Indeed, CRAWLER is the record and the message that we all need to hear in 2021. No other release epitomized the year quite like this one, so it would be ludicrous not to make CRAWLER my album of the year.