Tuned Up’s Top 50 Albums of 2021

By Ryan G

I don’t have anything particularly deep to say about this past year. I will say that this was a gargantuan year as far as the collective number of records we on staff have listened to, prominent additions to our staff, and a sense of hopefulness permeating many of the listens of the past year. Even with the spread of Omicron, may you find some solace in these records. Life is still good.

This list was compiled by contributors Ryan Getz, Cameron Carr, Monica Moser, Lee Rowley, Phil Hawkins, Casey Gallenberger, Austin Sisson, Alex Dye, Topher Parks, and Nathaniel Fitzgerald.

50. Maverick City Music – Jubilee: Juneteenth Edition: This band is a CCM success story that this corner of the industry needed. This is an accessible, inspiring, collection of genre fusion tunes meant to move the masses and get people talking. This is the ultimate “out of nowhere” word of mouth success story from this writer’s point of view. -RG (album pick by MM).

49. Rivals – Sad Looks Pretty On Me: Rivals “Sad Looks Pretty on Me” discusses the trials and tribulations of life events and dealing with heavy emotions rising to the surface. Writing about the promises and facades of living life on social media with their song “Fake Rich” featuring Elijah Witt from Every Time I Die, finding hope when all is seemingly lost with this what I consider movie-anthem “To Dom,” and fighting for balance within oneself in “Alkaline.” -LR

48. The Devil Wears Prada – Zii: Following 2019’s The Act was not going to be an easy feat, but the guys in TDWP managed to pull it off with the Zii EP. They managed to take elements of the first Zombie EP and combine it with the sound we’ve come more accustomed to all while delivering a ferocious and brutal piece of work both musically and lyrically. -PH

47. 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. -TP

46. Gojira – Fortitude: I listened to a lot of riffy metal this year, but nothing twisted my face or my guts nearly as much as Fortitude. It is a nonstop groove barrage with some of the most emotionally cathartic moments of the year, pulling from djent, doom, and even gospel. -NF

45. Bo Burnham – Inside (Songs):There are pop-culture moments from the pandemic that had their moments but will not be looked back on fondly (we’re looking at you Tiger King). There are others that shined a spotlight on the realities of our collective trauma and will stand as an historical document of the times. Bo Burnham’s Netflix ‘comedy’ special Inside is at the top of this list. In his audio-visual experimental art project, comedian/actor Burnham approached modern subjects like the internet as a tool for help and a source of great harm, the way we try to show our best selves on social media even though its superficial, Jeff Bezos, and most importantly the realities of mental health and the ways in which the pandemic has amplified those for all of us. Although there are funny moments throughout, it’s not a comedy album. “Inside” is a cathartic experience, in which the audience is invited to find themselves in Burnham’s darkest experiences over the last few years, and in the end hopefully be able to see a light at the end of the tunnel. “All Eyes on Me” is easily my song of the year and never fails to give me chills. There is a reason that extremely serious musician Phoebe Bridgers covered “That Funny Feeling”—because it powerfully touches the heart of what we’ve all been going through in a way that only art can do.  Inside (The Songs) is music therapy in its peak form. -AD

44. Carver Commodore – Welcome to the Modern World: Carver Commodore the next White Reaper, or someone bigger? Time will tell, but Welcome to the Modern World is a great harbinger of what’s to come. The band excels here with execution of rock songs for a more pop minded audience. Guitar lovers, do not fret (pun intended), this is a record for you. The grooves in and of themselves are earworms (Case in point: see “Queens” and “Cancel Culture”). -RG

43. Jud Benner – Lost and Found: I listened to The Goodnight a bit earlier in the decade. Out of curiosity, I checked to see if they had done anything new and instead stumbled on multi-instrumentalist Jud Benner’s solo album. This album is stacked front to back with solid songs that blend the likes of early Switchfoot with hints of Americana and alt-country. But there’s plenty to love here for the typical indie rock fan, too. -CG

42. Joy Oladokun – In Defense of My Own Happiness: The initial release of this album was in 2020, but Joy Oladokun received wider acclaim through a more formal release this year. In her initial review, writer Monica Moser exclaims ” I absolutely love the title not just for its encapsulation of her experience in these times or the implications of songwriting serving as a constructive method to achieving joy and fulfillment but because it also implies there will be more.”

41. The Kid Laroi – F*CK LOVE +3: The Justin Bieber achieved broader success in 2021 with the aforementioned collaboration and a reissue of this record. Our FL based contributor Lee Rowley is no stranger to polished pop and hip hop, and they chose this record as one of 5 highlights of the past year.

40. 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. -TP

39. Jeff Rosenstock – SKA DREAM: In what sounds like a joke taken too far, punk prodigy Jeff Rosenstock took his seminal 2020 album NO DREAM and decided to completely re-record it, in ska style, replete with horn section, upstrokes, and killer harmonies.  Wait, can he do that? Apparently so, and as a founding member of the now-defunct ska band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, he has the chops to make it so much more than just copy and pasting horns on top of already recorded music. This album is so good that listening to each track alongside of their NO DREAM counterparts makes you wonder why he didn’t just do it this way the first time around. The humor associated with ska culture makes its way into this reimagining of NO DREAM, with the album cover featuring black and white checks and a rude boy skanking on the cover as well as the songs being retitled with ska themes (“NO TIME” becomes “NO TIME TO SKANK,” “Nikes (Alt)” becomes “Airwalks (Alt),” but make no mistake, this is no joke. The lyrics are the same as NO DREAM and are deeply personal.  Even if you didn’t catch these songs the first time around or claim to not like ska (I believe everyone has a soft spot for ska), SKA DREAM deserves to be on everyone’s year end list, if for no other reason than that Jeff Rosenstock had the audacity of following through with this crazy idea and to take it seriously as an artistic endeavor. -AD

38. Bachelor – Doomin’ Sun: For a certain corner of the indie rock world, Bachelor is a super group. A collaboration between Jay Som and Palehound, Doomin’ Sun brings together the best of both acts: knotty guitars, aching lyrics, and shimmering arrangements. At the same time, it gives both acts a chance to further flex influences from Death Cab For Cutie’s early emo leanings and the swirling wash of dream pop. -CC

37. Tashaki Miyaki – Castaway: Usually implicit in the word “castaway” is a need to be rescued. Not here; Tashaki Miyaki luxuriate in the isolation, evoking gentle waves and dappled sunlight with lush arrangements and lonely, clear vocals. But there are storms too, and the trio doesn’t shy away, sailing into the darkness with squalls of fuzz and rumbling reverb. Castaway is dream pop album that manages to feel both sharply focused and charmingly aloof, a combo that equates—in this case—to timelessness. -AS

36. Andrew Belle – Nightshade: The master of melancholy dreamy indie songwriting returns with Nightshade. I often compare the best of Belle’s work to being wrapped in a warm blanket. This album is no exception; lead single “My Poor Heart” ended up being my favorite of the year. -RG

35. Mogwai – As the Love Continues: Mogwai have been churning out massive, climax-chasing, mostly instrumental post rock for almost thirty years, with almost zero dips in consistency. And yet, As The Love Continues achieved something no album had done yet: a number one spot on the British charts. Not to diminish the amazing output they’ve had, but this might be the first album that feels like it earned that. -NF

34. Wolves and Machines – Evergreen: This is one heck of a reunion album. It may not have as much of the definitive post-hardcore sound Wolves and Machines are known for, but the title track alone manages to seal the deal here that they have not lost any of their songwriting aptitude. Mix in a few acoustic-type tracks for good measure, and you’ll find a balanced album that doesn’t lean too far in any direction. It’s not the crown jewel of their discography, but it’s certainly a worthy addition. -CG

33. Illenium – Fallen Embers: Illenium’s Fallen Embers is a beautiful combination of melodic bass and heavy dubstep featuring popular collaborations with Excision on “In My Mind,” Lights on “Hearts Like Fire,” and a song everyone can relate to during the recent events of the last few years, “Crazy Times.” The album was recently nominated for Illenium’s first Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic. -LR

32. Starflyer 59 – Vanity: This is probably the best album Martin and Co. have put out in recent years. Not that their past few releases were bad, but they just fell short to some longtime fans like myself. However, Vanity seems to rejuvenate some life into the Starflyer 59 name and carries some hints from the Everybody Makes Mistakes and The Fashion Focus days. This one is enjoyable for old and new fans alike. -PH

31. 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. -TP

30. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – Carnage: No one walks into the Church of Nick Cave through the same door. Maybe you heard “Red Right Hand” in the opening scene of Scream or the intro credits of Peaky Blinders. Maybe you felt something special during the tent-dancing scene of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or felt your heart break during a pivotal moment in Shrek 2. Or maybe you heard this lyric from “White Elephant,” a highlight from Carnage, and you pumped your fist with righteous anger while Nick snarled “A protester kneels on the neck of a statue/the statue says, “I can’t breathe”/the protester says, “Now you know how it feels”/and he kicks it into the sea.” However you got here, welcome. -AS

29. Benjamin Daniel – Shelterheart: Ben’s second LP is somehow more ambitious than his first, spanning 15 seamless tracks that expand on his trademark sound with full-band arrangements. It’s sonically-diverse and lyrically-forward. It’s honest and human. I may not relate to all of the specific circumstances in the lyrics, but I nonetheless find myself in a place where I can’t help but feel the songs are speaking to me powerfully. -CG

28. NF – Clouds Mixtape: Michigan rapper NF (Nathan John Feuerstein) released his Clouds Mixtape in March of this year to much acclaim.  For a two-time Dove-award winning Christian artist that is signed to Capitol Christian Music Group but claims not to make explicitly Christian music, NF does surprisingly well in the “secular” arena.  Case in point, Clouds Mixtape peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Top 200, and for good reason. NF’s style captures the most ear-wormy elements of rappers like Eminem and Machine Gun Kelly, who appeal to audiences both inside and outside of the hip-hop world. For anyone who loves the epic, orchestral sound of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” this record is for you, as every track soars on strings and engaging storytelling. -AD

27. Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed: While following up any breakthrough album is a tall order, few faced the pressure that Kacey Musgraves did after 2018’s critically acclaimed Golden Hour. While Star-Crossed doesn’t exactly pack a punch, its an earnest collection of tunes that altogether feel like a natural, enjoyable follow up to Golden Hour. Kacey’s attitude here is one of honesty and approachability at the same time. -RG (album pick by MM)

26. Bloodlines – Hevel: This is a powerhouse of an EP. Musically, it is brutal. Lyrically, it packs a spiritual punch that hasn’t been seen since For Today called it quits. If this is what an EP looks like I can only imagine what a full length would be like. Bonus points for a guest vocal from Brook Reeves of Impending Doom. -PH

25. Kero Kero Bonito – Civilisation: Civilisation may seem like a flex on those who haven’t been taking KKB seriously for the last five years, a box full of pop magic that feels as far away from their early PC Music leanings as London is from Japan. But fans will see the common DNA with the early stuff, except that those foundational bleeps, boops, animal noises and found sounds now work in service of melancholy, future-anime-themes like “21/04/20” and sophisticated disco epics like the excellent “Well Rested.” Kero Kero Bonito continues to sound unlike any of their contemporaries and better than most. -AS

24. Alexalone – Alexaloneworld: It wouldn’t be hard to believe Alexaloneworld came straight out of the ’90s. While resemblances to My Bloody Valentine, Duster, and Sonic Youth abound, there’s something undeniably current about Alex Peterson’s music. You might have caught them in the past performing in Lomelda or Hovvdy—and those are good cues to what makes this album different from other slowcore and shoegaze revivalists. There’s something intimate and present here (there’s also an arsenal of 21st century guitar pedals). -CC

23. Sleigh Bells – Texis: I only found Sleigh Bells quite recently, and I have to say, I was expecting much different based off the name alone. Lo and behold, the band’s career spans over a decade at this point and it’s easy to see how they helped pave the way for the likes of Poppy. The combination of bublegum pop vocal hooks and metal guitar and drums is hard to wrap my mind around. And “I feel like dynamite, I feel like dying tonight” is easily one of the best chorus lyrics of the year. -CG

22. Glowbug – The Bumblebee King: Two years in a row, Daniel Anderson’s eclectic propensity to mix unconventional electronic elements into big band contexts has enamored me. The Bumblebee King is a decidedly different effort from his last LP, though. This time, there’s a vintage vibe in the likes of soul and Motown. Some of the tropical elements are scaled back, some of the guitar is more central. However, it wouldn’t be a proper Glowbug LP without plenty of surprises mixed in. If you’re looking for a more ‘organic’ flavor of Glowbug, this might just be it. -CG

21. twenty one pilots – Scaled and Icy: The dynamic duo from Columbus returned in 2021 with a deep dive into the DEMA storyline… or so most of their fans think. What happened to their trademark logo? Are they under the control of some shadow organization that’s a secret plot to make them sound more cookie-cutter mainstream? Is the next album gonna be “for the fans”? Who really knows? All I know is that there are some freaking bops on this album. Favorite tracks: “Shy Away,” “The Outside,” “Choker.” -RG

20. CHAI – WINK: This album has five song titles that reference food. This album has 8-bit gameboy sounds, lo-fi hiss, chillwave, and house beats. This album has a song that is a sneaky encouragement to protesters, a handful of body positivity anthems, and a smoldering track about comparing one’s moles to chocolate chips. The girls in CHAI make Yoshi noises in one of the songs. This album rules. -AS

19. Five Iron Frenzy – Until This Shakes Apart: In most cases, when a band we loved in youth group makes a super political album, it might cause us to cringe. But Five Iron Frenzy has always been outside of the typical Religious Right fare fed to us by Focus on the Family music recommendation charts. I mean, Quantity is Job 1, the EP known for its humorous Pants Opera, had a track about police brutality on it. Reese hasn’t dulled any, and here he sites his sights on racism, fascism, gentrification, and more (the KKK, NRA, and RNC are listed by name). Musically, it’s the most sophisticated thing they’ve ever done, taking detours from the upstrokes and power chords of Third Wave ska and experimenting with indie rock, dub reggae, and even some moments of electronica. It’s the come back album we never knew we needed. -NF

18. The Mountain Goats – Dark in Here: It puzzles me how The Mountain Goats have become a viral Tik-Tok sensation with their classic song “No Children.” But as a big TMG fan, any mainstream exposure is good exposure. Though only recently becoming a household Gen-Z name, Darnielle and company have not slowed down in their output since Tallahassee, releasing Dark in Here and a live double album this last year. Dark in Here reflects exhibits many of the same melancholy themes and vivid storytelling with a pseudo-spiritual bent that have made many fall in love with the avant-garde rock outfit.  Itwill not only scratch the itch of the longtime listener looking for their next TMG fix, but it serves as a good entry point for those who got interested in the band via social media.  -AD

17. The Weather Station – Ignorance: I always enjoy pensive albums, and The Weather Station is no exception. This might be the most chill quick tempo album (though this certainly doesn’t apply to every song) that I’ve ever heard. It’s a record that certainly sounds like its album art implies; brooding, classy, and mellow with a touch of sheen. The vocals at times are lilting, and speak to a myriad of experiences good and bad. -RG

16. 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 album and the message that we all need to hear in 2021. -TP

15. Lantlôs – Wildhund: The first time I heard Melting Sun, it ushered in a fundamental shift in the paradigm in which I considered what made music heavy. Wildhund plays with a lot of the same textures, but it replaces the meditative post rock, shoegaze, and doom structures with earnest attempts at pop formulas. The guitars are heavy, the drums are crushing, and there are hooks and harmonies galore. Forget that it’s 15 here: this is my AOTY. -NF

14. CHVRCHES – Screen Violence: I’m going to come right out and say it. This is CHVRCHES’ best release since The Bones of What You Believe, which is saying something. “He Said She Said” is one of the most striking pop songs of the year, and I feel as if Lauren Mayberry is glaring at me while she’s singing it. Other standout moments on the record include “How Not to Drown” featuring the legend himself Robert Smith of the Cure, “California,” and “Nightmares.” -RG

13. Adjy – The Idyll Opus: It’d be an understatement to say this was one of my most-anticipated LPs in years. I’ve easily spent 40 hours digesting the songs, ruminating on the lyrics, looking up cross-references, and writing Genius annotations. On the surface, this is an ambitious and cohesive Appalachian-flavored chamber pop record. But under the surface, there’s non-linear narrative about the nature of art itself, artful social commentary, and some draw-dropping arrangements. It’s a great album, but the art project side of it really helps it ascend above many other projects. -CG

12. Olivia Rodrigo – Sour: In a year like 2021,  Sour tasted sweet. Simultaneously an angsty time capsule for Millennials and an emotional mirror for Gen Z, Rodrigo created an album that echoed our current woes and drudged up past ones in a way that was fun and cathartic. This was my top album of the year and according to Spotify Wrapped, I embarrassingly listened to “drivers license,” my top song of the year, 56 times. -MM

11. The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore: As a (nearly) 33 year old man, am I genetically predisposed to enjoy dad rock more and more? Whatever the case may be, this album is unsurprisingly one of my favorites of the year. While it isn’t an instant classic for me, there are gems peppered throughout. Favorite tracks: Harmonia’s Dream, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, Victim. -RG

10. 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. -TP

Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power combines the the joys, horrors and other emotions expressed during her journey to motherhood. Not only did they make an entire album about their pregnancy, but also an entire movie that debuted in theaters followed with live performances via MomentHouse. Scoring #1 on Billboard during release week, this is some of their most concise and expressive music to date. This is raw, and as explained by the artist herself, we all as listeners have different perspectives as to how we view the album in our own lives. -LR

9. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite: In many ways, Infinite Granite feels like Deafheaven’s “unplugged” album. Screamed vocals, blast beats, and thick distortion are largely absent. But, even with a restrained sonic palette it still sounds like Deafheaven. Many of these songs—vocals aside—wouldn’t sound out of place on New Bermuda, their heaviest record. But what Infinite Granite does so well is display the softer underbelly of the band had had always been present, just hidden under layers of metal abrasiveness. -NF

8. Zao – The Crimson Corridor: I was a geeky 7th grader who only listened to CCM and Weird Al when my best friend Travis showed me Zao’s Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest. I’ve followed their career since then, but nothing has grabbed me as much as that record. Until The Crimson Corridor, which injects their brand of metalcore with a healthy dose of glacial post metal and clean vocals. -NF

7. Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost: Tyler’s new album might be his best one yet.  It’s a beautiful mixture of his horror-core beginnings and his R&B alter-ego IGOR with some early 2000’s mixtape flair thrown in for good measure.  Tyler proves handily here that time has not slowed down his flow. Propped up by the reigning king of the mixtape, DJ Drama, he explores some of the deeper challenges of race and failed relationships while also crafting some incredible pop songs that will hopefully guide mainstream hip-hop back into a more artistically creative direction. -AD

6. Manchester Orchestra – The Million Masks of God: Is this the best Manchester Orchestra album yet? It’s certainly their best production—heavy electric guitars and sparkling synthesizers mingling alongside liquid bass lines and grooving drums. It’s also a solid contender for their best songwriting. This is maybe the album I came back to the most this year. -NF

5. Black Country, New Road – For The First Time: Black Country, New Road is near tailormade for music critic adoration—but don’t let praise for avant-garde leanings and noise-ridden arrangements turn you off. More than many experimental peers, Black Country, New Road writes with musical hooks that somehow claw through the (well-organized) chaos. On the band’s debut full-length, saxophone and violin battle with squalling guitar and orchestration struggles against disintegration. Above it all, frontman Isaac Wood delivers rambling narrations on everything from Kanye and science fairs. -TP

4. Thrice – Horizons/East: Since the massive sea changes of Vheissu and The Alchemy Index, Thrice has often been called “the Radiohead of heavy music.” But as much as I loved the last two records, there’s no denying that they have been settling into some comfortable patterns. Horizons/East is a much needed shot in the arm, upending the usual Thrice playbook with staggering results. -NF

3. idle threat – Blurred Visions: If one album caused me to do a double take and eat my words this year it was idle threat’s “blurred visions.” When they released their EP on Tooth & Nail I admittedly wrote them off and didn’t think there’d be much to come from them. However, I was sorely mistaken. From start to finish “blurred visions” is absolutely captivating. It’s melodic, yet aggressive both lyrically and musically and I’m glad I decided to give them a fair chance or I may have missed this gem of an album. -PH

2. Adele – 30: It’s hard to say when the build-up to Adele’s fourth album began. Was it with the “30” billboards that showed up in October unexplained? The paparazzi weight loss pictures in 2020? The public announcement in 2019 of her divorce? For some fans—many in Adele’s case—it likely started as soon as 25 finished playing in 2015. However much has changed in Adele’s life, 30 comes to us as a reminder that our relationship with her hasn’t changed. Her stunning voice; grand arrangements; musical homages to jazz, pop, and early R&B—they’re all here. Newly added are recordings of conversations with her son, filtered backing vocals, a trap beat evens sneaks in tastefully. Through all the heartbreak, the challenges of motherhood, the turmoil of stardom, Adele remains the one reassuring us. -CC

1. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee: The contrarian in me didn’t expect this album to be our number 1, but here we are. Indeed, Michelle Zauner had a monster year. I haven’t read her memoir Crying in H Mart yet, but I think I needed to fully digest the joy of Jubilee before being prepared to dive into her memoir. I’d rather experience sorrow through the lens of joy than the other way around, but I digress. Jubilee is a quirky, fun, accessible and smart record. “Be Sweet” is a freakin’ bop. I’ll never forget where I was when I heard it for the first time; sitting at the kitchen table at my parents’ vacation rental in southern Florida this past winter. The Best New Artist Grammy nom is well deserved. Olivia Rodrigo will win, but I hope I’m wrong and I have to come back and make an edit to this post. -RG

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