artwork by Anthony Bauer

Over the past few weeks, I have been fending off curious and good-intentioned questions about when I would be posting my list of “best” albums of the year. If I may pull the curtain back a bit (like a discount wizard of oz), honesty I had every intention to post my list during the first week of January.

Yet, things got a bit hectic as they have for so many of us. While a part of it was me fine-tuning it and making sure I got the list and order right, I would be lying to all of you if that was my excuse. Life is quite strange right now and between an actual bout with covid, some interesting life obstacles, and just some good old procrastination, here we are.

But I guess that is a product of the time. Release schedules and our expectations are constantly put on hold. The fragility of life throwing you a Pedro Martinez-esque curveball is now the new normal. Expect the unexpected. Am I rambling?

By now, we are all tired of hearing the notion that this year was the best year ever or the worst year ever for new releases. Every year, the truth is always somewhere in between as long as you keep an open mind and know where to look.

We found albums we loved from both the expected and unexpected, from big-time artists to those who are currently somewhere between the margins but will one day be the sort of names that other writers will soon declare too popular to champion further.

I am still rambling. Thank you for still reading this blog and for continuing to allow me to do this thing. Here are 50 albums that helped pass the days between the oddball year that was 2021, as well as a few honorable mentions. Best vs favorite. These are albums I enjoyed over the past 12 weird months.

Honorable Mentions:

Aaron Frazer – Introducing…, Andy Shauf – Wilds, Chubby and The Gang – The Mutt’s Nuts, Cloud Nothings – The Shadow I Remember, Courtney Barnet – Things Take Time, Take Time, Damon Albarn – The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, Hayden Thorpe – Moondust for My Diamond, Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take, Indigo Sparke – Echo, Parquet Courts – Sympathy For Life, Viagra Boys – Welfare Jazz, White Denim – Crystal Bullets / King Tears

50. Hand Habits – Fun House

49. Pearl Charles – Magic Mirror

48. Katy Kirby – Cool Dry Place

47. Still Corners – The Last Exit

46. Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

45. Small Black – Cheap Dreams

44. Grouper – Shade

43. W.H Lung – Vanities

42. Pip Blom – Welcome Break

41. Linn Koch-Emmery – Being the Girl

40. Iceage – Seek Shelter

39. Villagers – Fever Dreams

38. Sault – Nine

37. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

36. Vince Staples – Vince Staples

35. Geese – Projector

34. Amyl & The Sniffers – Comfort to Me

33. Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World

32. Bo Burnham – Inside (The Songs)

31. Pom Pom Squad – Death of a Cheerleader

30. Mt. Misery – Once Home, No Longer

29. Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / The London Symphony – Promises

28. Dummy – Mandatory Enjoyment

27. Deafheaven – Great Mass of Color

26. Black Midi – Cavalcade

25. Bess Atwell – Already, Always

24. Shame – Drunk Tank Pink

23. Lucy Dacus – Home Video

22. Snail Mail – Valentine

21. IDLES – Crawler

20. For Those I Love – For Those I Love

What a debut this is from For Those I Love, like a free-flowing modern version of The Streets with colorful electronic arrangements that are equally as danceable as they are contemplative. It’s a lot of things but ultimately, very much a creation of its own.

19. Turnstile – Glow On

I will admit I arrived late to the party on this album, as well as Turnstile as a whole. But once this album clicks, there is no going back. This hits as hard as it needs to, thrashing yet oddly catchy without ever sacrificing its integrity. The album I didn’t know I need to help voice the struggle that was very much 2021.

18. Low – Hey What

I don’t know what I can offer that hasn’t already been more eloquently put about this album or Low’s incredible career in general. But if there weren’t many that used the electronic and rock forms to channel the emotional turmoil of the year.

17. Ducks Ltd. – Modern Fiction 

A lot of the time we overuse the phrase underrated but it’s hard to talk about Ducks Ltd’s remarkable debut album without acknowledging how this album deserved so much more love than it seemed to get. Song after song of jangle pop perfect, this is the itch that we forgot we needed to be scratched – especially this well.

16. Maple Glider – To Enjoy is the Only Thing

In the same vein, Maple Glider’s devastatingly beautiful debut was one that we wished people were shouting about even more. Poetic beauty delivered so sincerity, capturing the pain and loss that so many of us encountered in various forms throughout the year. Whatever qualities are “it” Maple Glider certainly possesses and puts it on full display on this remarkable record.

15. The Killers – Pressure Machine

If I’m being honest, for the past decade my fandom of The Killers has been resigned to just seeing them live. I did not expect to be as floored by an album of theirs as I was here. While sure, it has those Flowers’ penned pop moments that are infectious, there are some *actual* Springsteen-esque moments that feel powerful and riskier than anything that they have done before.

14. Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny haha

While people have been singing the praises of Faye Webster for a few years now, it seemed like I Know I’m Funny haha felt like the culmination of all her work to date and a true coming-out party. An album spacious with atmospheric folk but also a knack for natural hooks that signal that this is just nearly the start of a wonderful career.

13. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams 

Arlo Parks delivered not just one of the finest debut albums of the year, but one of the best albums in general. Fully realized and shining bright with a natural songwriting talent that felt vibrant, full of life, and most importantly, smarty constructed. It’s a true mission statement, one that will leave you smiling from start to finish.

12. Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST

While Tyler is at the point of his career where most artists are losing what makes them special and making albums just to headline mediocre music festivals across the country, Tyler actually continues to showcase continued artists growth and the special qualities that made him become one of the biggest names not just in hip-hop, but in all of music.

11. The Weather Station – Ignorance

Tamara Lindeman has been working for this moment for some time. There’s no questioning the steady hand of her work as The Weather Station, she’s been releasing great album after great album for years. Even still, it’s Ignorance, her fifth album, that feels like her true coming-out party. It’s a masterful record full of gorgeous and rich detailed arrangements that pack a substantial emotional punch.

10. The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore

On I Don’t Live Here Anymore, The War On Drugs has truly taken the throne as one of our biggest modern rock acts of the date. While their sound may move at a more patient pace than ever before, the core of the band has stayed the same, even with Atlantic Records stamping their name on the final product. You can finger point at all of the influences, but what you have here in a record that lifts your spirit, makes you want to get in your car and speed down the highway, getting far away from wherever it is you call home.

9. The Coral – Coral Island

One of the few bands on here that I was listening to back in high school and not one that I would have guessed would have ranked this high on my list – if they made it at all. But The Coral turned back the clock, then reversed and moved full steam ahead with a light concept record that showcased all the best elements of one of Britain’s more overlooked rock bands for some time now.

8. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg

Dry Cleaning certainly had “a moment” in 2021, riding the steady weave of post-punk revival and doing so in a way that was simply undeniable. From those sharp angular guitar riffs to the commanding presence of singer Florence Shaw, the songs of New Long Leg left an impression and packed a punch all the same. It’s a remarkable debut album and while it calls to the past, more importantly, it also casts its gaze firmly ahead.

7. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

I take back what I just said. If there is anyone who truly had “a moment” it was Michelle Zauner. She became a NY Times best-selling author with her memoir Crying in H Mart and released her grandest work as Japanese Breakfast yet with Jubilee. All the best features that Zauner and co have floated on past albums, dream pop, shoegaze, indie rock, straight-up pop, all collide and intersect to perfect, resulting in a much-needed joyful moment.

6. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

In a world that is fair and just, Little Simz would be the biggest name in mainstream hip hop – at least stateside. I guess that is more than wishful thinking considering the state of any form of popular music here. What a shame as everyone is missing out on one of the best pure talents working at the moment. From the whip-smart lyrics, the smooth flow, and the ridiculous production, this makes Little Simz 2-2 in her career, making a clear case that she is one of the brightest stars in the industry at the moment. People will come around.

5. Black Country, New Road – For the first time

To be honest with you, at any given point you could have found me juggling the placement of this album along with Squid and Dry Cleaning. We are at a mini golden age of sorts with emerging post-punk bands with Black Country, New Road at the forefront of this era. They gorgeously blend elements of punk with delicate beauty, both seemingly at the brink of breaking at any moment. The fact that they already have a new album coming out this year makes it apparent we will find out soon what comes next.

4. Lord Huron – Long Lost

I always have been a fan of Lord Huron’s albums but it wasn’t until Long Lost that I really found myself fully understanding the power that this band holds. Turning back the clock to the sort of nostalgic folk that used to reign supreme on the radio (imagine that?), the best way I saw their music described online was sad songs for the cosmos. They is no doubt a ton of classic folk and country here, but it’s the way the band ultimately shares their hearts with us that allows it to rise above in such an immediate and affecting fashion.

3. Squid – Bright Green Field

In a year littered with choices in the post-punk genre, ultimately it was Squid’s debut album that rose to the top, at least for me The band samples so many greats of the past from punk to art-rock and even dance-punk. A blend of accessibility and a unique weird sensibility of its own, Squid marches to the beat of their own drum. Concise song length be damned, Squid stretches out every fiber of what a song can be, while also paying ode to the past while steadily marching ahead to the future, which is indeed looking bright and green.

2. Flyte – This Is Really Going To Hurt

Somehow four years have passed since Flyte released their remarkable debut album The Loved Ones and somehow a lot and nothing has changed. I don’t know to lecture you any further on the perplexing notion of why Flyte isn’t 10x bigger than they are, especially now with the release of This Is Really Going to Hurt, which stamps out the notion of a sophomore slump. Will Taylor and the rest of the band are students of classic rock and folk songwriting, using their pain and heartbreak as inspiration and songs that helped us heal in our own ways during a period of time that did really fucking hurt.

1. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend

I knew Wolf Alice has something special about them when I first discovered Fluffy and saw them at SXSW nearly eight years ago. With their first two albums, they made terrific strides in evolution that had me impressed. But even so, I don’t think I was prepared for what the band would do with album number three. I remember walking outside during the sweltering heat of this fever dream of a summer and being immediately drawn into this world that Wolf Alice created. It was very much them but at the same time, a different version of them. Fully committed to colorful sonic soundscapes and still finding ways to blend pop melodies along with thrashing hard rock ragers. Wolf Alice are not the bnd that we thought they were, but exactly the one we needed.

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