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Under the Radar’s Top 100 Albums of 2021 Part 1

Jan 07, 2022
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For many in America and around the world, when 2021 began they were in a state of uncertainty. The pandemic still raged and the chaotic Trump presidency was coming to an end (even if you supported the policies of the former president, it’s hard to argue that his term wasn’t turbulent). In January 2021 vaccines were on the horizon, but not widely available yet and it was unclear how and when any of us would get a shot. It was also up to speculation as to how peaceful the transition of power from President Trump to then-president-elect Biden would be, given the former’s “big lie” about a supposed stolen election. And only a few days into the new year, January 6 to be precise, it was clear that the transition would not be orderly at all, when Trump supporters stormed the capitol in a previously unthinkable display of insurrection (a term I’d in the past thought of as simply the title of one of the lesser Star Trek movies). For music fans and musicians, at the start of 2021 there was anxiety as to when live music would be able to return, with many music venues barely hanging on. It also seemed that some notable artists were holding back from releasing already completed albums until touring was a possibility again.

Alas, when 2021 ended there was still much uncertainty. While many of us did our part and got vaccinated (and even boosted). While kids as young as five could get a shot in time for Christmas. While there was a brief period where going to a concert, a movie, and the grocery store seemed safe, even without masks on perhaps. But then along came the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and, despite it sounding like the name of a friendly Transformer, the mutation spiked everyone’s pandemic anxiety again. Is it safe to send kids to school, even if they are masked and vaccinated? The Grammys have been postponed indefinitely and will major music festivals and tours be next?

The best that can be said about 2021 then is that it wasn’t as bad as 2020, which for many in the post 9/11 generation might be considered their most trying year. We were able to get vaccinated. Kids were able to go back to school (virtual learning was tough on kids, parents, and teachers). Long delayed movies came out (Daniel Craig finally got his tear-inducing Bond swansong). Some vacations were taken. Politics in Washington got somewhat boring again under Biden. The economy was doing better. But life was far from being back to normal and fear set it in that the pandemic world was going to be the new normal much longer than hoped.

2021 was at least a fruitful year for new music. Some released albums were partially or fully recorded pre-2020, others were written and recorded under lockdown. Herein is a list of the 100 new albums we most loved in 2021, records that helped get us through another tough year. We fully acknowledge that we’re late to the best-of-2021 party. We had other considerations in the last quarter of 2021, such as finishing and putting out our special double 20th Anniversary Issue and finalizing and announcing our 20th anniversary Covers of Covers album, both of which took precedence over working out exactly what our favorite albums of the year were. Plus, we long for the days when music websites posted albums of the year lists in late December or even early January, instead of late November/early December.

For those curious about the process: each of our writers were asked to submit a list of their Top 45 albums of 2021. They had to be new albums (not reissues) first released in 2021. Beforehand we collectively came up with a nominations list and most of their choices had to come from that list, but the writers were allowed to include some other albums too. For an album to make the Top 100 at least three different writers needed to have it on their lists. Nineteen different writers and editors voted and the number one and number two albums were each picked by 17 different writers and most of the Top 75 were picked by at least six different writers. Then via a magic of math and an Excel document, it was all calculated into the list you find now.

Here’s hoping that 2022 will a much less eventful year than the last two, boring even, but that the music is just as good.

1

Japanese Breakfast

Jubilee

Dead Oceans

In “Paprika,” the opener to Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee, there comes a moment where singer/songwriter Michelle Zauner asks a telling question: “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers/To captivate every heart?” If the wave of acclaim is to be believed, Zauner truly has captivated every heart with Jubilee, her third full-length album.

Where her first two records meditated most directly on grief and loss, Zauner’s latest album walks into a new day, full of joy and earnest hope. Zauner’s airy vocals sound more angelic than ever, especially set against the layered horns of “Slide Tackle,” the wistful strings of “Kokomo, IN,” and the shimmering pop disco of “Be Sweet.” Yet, her palette also expands into new territory, as with the subtle electronic beauties of “Posing In Bondage.” Jubilee may truly be Zauner at the height of her powers, but it also proved to be the euphoric rush 2021 needed.

By Caleb Campbell

2

Wolf Alice

Blue Weekend

RCA/Dirty Hit

Wolf Alice once again proved why they’re one of the U.K.’s most essential bands with Blue Weekend, returning from a four-year break with what is quite possibly their best work yet. The band have never felt quite this sprawling or potent, leaning into unhinged punk on “Play the Greatest Hits,” delivering delicate acoustic confessions with “No Hard Feelings,” and launching into the stratosphere for “The Last Man on Earth.”

Wolf Alice have consistently gone bigger and bolder with each release and they’ve once again topped themselves. They’ve pushed further into new realms while staying grounded in their distinct shimmering beauty and Ellie Roswell’s singular voice. Blue Weekend proves to be a record of affecting drama, unbridled ambition, and well-earned confidence, a document of the band at the top of their game.

By Caleb Campbell

3

Low

HEY WHAT

Sub Pop

Is it worth trying to predict what to expect from a new Low album at this stage? Other than an assumption it will be good of course. Nearly three decades and now 13 records in, HEY WHAT is Low sounding like Low and not sounding like anything Low has been before. In their latest reinvention, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk shift away from Double Negative by leaning into melody again, though not before running it through another experimental filter. Chords hang and drone, lyrics repeat and sustain, tension builds. And builds and builds and builds. And then the release, oh what a release. Gentle, then jagged and ominous, heavier on guitars, synths pulsing, percussion taking a breather; it seeps in before blowing all away. In short then, the only thing to do is listen. That much we could have predicted before.

By Stephen Mayne

4

Dry Cleaning

New Long Leg

4AD

It takes a lot of work and even more skill to sound effortlessly cool. Trying to force it, especially by copying someone cooler, will only fail. Not a problem for Dry Cleaning. The London post-punks manage to tap a lot of influences without ever sounding like they’re imitating anyone. They’ll soon have plenty of people trying and failing to sound like them. Guttural basslines roll forward in lockstep with drums, forming the foundation for clipped guitar lines to carve across. But the real weapon is vocalist Florence Shaw, delivering sardonic spoken word lyrics that ring out clearly across 10 pulsating tracks. Images stick in the brain as she narrates her way across the record with a steady stream of memorable lines. Or as Shaw puts in on “Strong Feelings,” “Just an emo dead stuff collector/Things come to the brain.” Notice had already been served following a couple of good EPs in 2019. Consider New Long Leg a resoundingly successful delivery on that early promise.

By Stephen Mayne

5

Cassandra Jenkins

An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

Ba Da Bing!

An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is comprised of intimate recollections, the aperçus proffered by friends and acquaintances—a Long Island fisherman, the security guard at the Met Breuer museum, Jenkins’ therapist, her driving instructor. The Brooklyn songwriter lets visitors deep into her world as she meditates on transient interactions, grieves the late David Berman, and assuages sorrow and confusion with the healing power of nature. “Baby, go to the ocean/The water, it cures everything,” she remembers her mother telling her on “New Bikini.” Poignant saxophone lines and Josh Kaufman’s sparkling guitars support their leader throughout, and there’s a marrying of stillness with constant, gentle motion. Through her lilting stream of consciousness, Cassandra Jenkins latches on to palpable answers to universal questions and shares them without a caveat.

By Hayden Merrick

6

The War on Drugs

I Don't Live Here Anymore

Atlantic

The War on Drugs’ fifth record, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, is not a departure for Adam Granduciel’s long-running project. Rather, it’s a work of synthesis. The project’s classic rock touchstones, its gorgeous production layers, and the euphoric highs of Granduciel’s guitar lines all coalesce into the band’s most finely tuned work yet. Each lush detail feels intentional and considered, each ballad crafted for the moment where the song bursts into starry synth-laden beauty.

As always, the comparisons to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen loom large, but I Don’t Live Here Anymore also feels like the album where Granduciel’s sweeping Americana takes its own vivid identity. Granduciel has pared down and streamlined his project into his most immediately affecting record yet, one that calls to mind open highways, clear skies, and vast oceans, crafting untamed vistas filled with hope and possibility.

By Caleb Campbell

7

Arlo Parks

Collapsed in Sunbeams

Transgressive

In 2021 it felt like we all just needed a small escape from everything crashing in. For many, that small reprieve came in the form of Arlo Parks’ long-awaited debut, Collapsed in Sunbeams. The record feels akin to a quiet empty room, a place for peace and meditation filled with the sunlight of the early morning. Parks’ poetic lyrics provide soul-stirring reflections on mental health, coming of age, and queerness, while her tender bedroom pop offers a mesmerizing stage for her songwriting. While many stellar January releases lose their sheen by the time the year ends, Collapsed in Sunbeams has been a constant companion, offering a warm and empathetic retreat to escape to when times are darkest.

By Caleb Campbell

8

Lucy Dacus

Home Video

Matador

Only three albums into her career, Lucy Dacus has cemented herself as a master of the art of storytelling. Many songs have earned the titles of confessional or diaristic, but few can invite you to completely inhabit their world the way Dacus does on Home Video. Quite fittingly, the record plays like clips from the titular home video, vignettes of the moments that shaped Dacus into the woman she is today.

Confusing and disappointing forays into romance, ever-present queer longing, and the hormonal mess of VBS summer camp all flash by on the screen glowing with the dim haze of nostalgia. Meanwhile, punctuating the flushed cheeks and longing stares are the record’s most cutting moments, songs that bleed together past stories with all too present pains. The quiet brutality of “Thumbs” is the defining moment, voicing Dacus’ fury with unmatched power yet delivering it in a near whisper.

But, though the record primarily explores memory, it ends in fantasy. “Triple Dog Dare” brings an alternate ending to Dacus’ home video where her blossoming queer romance ends with them sailing into the sunset, departing childhood together for the future’s unknown straits.

By Caleb Campbell

9

The Weather Station

Ignorance

Fat Possum

Ignorance opens with a gradual build-up, drums quietly persistent, strings stirring, piano jumping in. Then Tamara Lindeman’s voice enters and “Robber” is off, one of the best songs on one of the best albums of the year taking flight. The Weather Station’s fifth album manages to stay up there for the entirety of its 40-minute playtime, delivering a beguiling combination of folk with a jazzy lounge undercurrent. This anchors an urgent yet intimate contemplation of the climate crisis from Lindeman. Take “Tried to Tell You,” an equally brilliant signature song from the record. Over three and a half wrenchingly beautiful minutes, one person rejecting and hurting someone they love blows up in scale to lament how we do this to the wider world around. Despite the thematic scale, each individual element is clearly discernible, something that carries across every song. The real marvel is how Ignorance manages to be greater than the sum of its parts without obscuring any one of those parts.

By Stephen Mayne

10

LUMP

Animal

Chrysalis/Partisan

For those of us that believe that Laura Marling can do no wrong, her project with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay fits that bill well. The duo’s second foray as LUMP leaves behind their self-titled debut’s streak of melancholy in favor of a wide ranging and freer to roam 45-minute romp. Marling’s lyrics were inspired by a dive into the world of psychology, and Lindsay stays ever hot on her heels. His machines scale the heights alongside her on “Climb Every Wall,” while he snuffles, bleats, and shuffles into every corner of the title song. But a softer side emerges as well on a beautiful pair of tracks with “Red Snakes” and the closing “Phantom Limb.” A collaboration that stays fresh by finding new paths to explore, with some undoubtedly left to journey down.

By Mark Moody

11

Nation of Language

A Way Forward

[PIAS]

It’s uncommon for artists to be as open about their influences as Nation of Language, but it’s easy to appreciate that level of candor when they so perfectly nail their delivery. On A Way Forward, they didn’t just copy the styles of the artists that inspired it—Krautrock and Kraftwerk seem to hold the greatest sway here—but built something new from a place of deep love and appreciation for the genre. It’s a lovely, vintage-sounding LP that feels like more than just a “lost classic” from the period, but one that might have been considered a genuine classic had it been released, say, in Europe in 1974. Fortunately, there’s still time for it to become one now.

By Austin Trunick

12

Magdalena Bay

Mercurial World

Luminelle

With Y2K-nostalgia in full swing, it was only a matter of time before somebody seized on the aesthetics of the turn-of-the-century internet-obsessed. In 2021, that band was newcomers Magdalena Bay. They teased their debut, Mercurial World, with a host of retro websites, music videos, and surreal and hilarious TikToks. But though the rollout was decidedly retro, the Los Angeles-based duo’s record is entirely of its moment.

Magdalena Bay joins the ranks of pop luminaries like Kero Kero Bonito and Caroline Polachek while holding space for inspiration from 2010s indie pop like MGMT and CHVRCHES. Their world of glitchy ballads and shimmering pop anthems is remarkably cohesive and sequenced brilliantly. Each song falls one into another, with even the closer, “The Beginning,” leading right into the intro, “The End.” The results are all-enveloping and mesmerizing, neither completely indebted to the sounds of the ’90s nor completely lost to the digital ether. Magdalena Bay has managed to occupy a space all their own, a glittery pop landscape you’ll want to explore again and again.

By Caleb Campbell

13

Ora the Molecule

Human Safari

Mute

The brainchild of Norwegian songwriter, musician, and producer Nora Schjelderup, Ora the Molecule’s debut full-length, Human Safari, is a multi-layered electronic art-pop album of depth and beauty that bursts with imagination and creativity. It’s a difficult album to pigeonhole and the experimental tone and the almost wide-eyed appetite for discovery sometimes has hints of early Björk or Kate Bush.

Schjelderup certainly addresses some weighty existential themes. For example, “Die to be a Butterfly” delves into a personal fear of failure, whereas conversely “The Ball” hypotheses on how constant competition can lead to failure. But rather than dwell on the nature of human frailty Schjelderup turns Human Safari into a playful and uplifting celebration of the infinite creativity of human beings and their potential to strive to be better. It’s an elegant and sophisticated debut from an artist who, one feels, will have plenty more to say over the next few years.

By Andy Von Pip

14

Julien Baker

Little Oblivions

Matador

No other songwriter working today can write tracks that cut quite as deep as Julien Baker’s. At times, listening to her unrelenting search for meaning can feel almost like an exercise in voyeuristic masochism, with each cry into the dark adding another wound to your soul. However, where her previous releases drew power from intimacy, her third record, Little Oblivions, adds newfound majesty as Baker is joined for the first time by a full band.

Where her confessions were once quiet cuts, now they are pounding blows, hitting with the same force as the piercing synthesizers that open the record on “Hardline.” Baker’s lyrics will stay seared within for weeks, raw documents of her own battles with faith, addiction, and connection. Yet, the new arrangements also lend the album new collective power, inviting the listener to find a measure of comfort and catharsis within Baker’s darkness.

By Caleb Campbell

15

Piroshka

Love Drips and Gathers

Bella Union

In the way that the characters from our favorite sitcoms have intertwined romantic relationships, the members of Piroshka have history. A dream pop supergroup of sorts, the members are collated from Lush, Moose, Elastica, and Modern English. Their second album gentrifies the genre’s celestial harmonies and glacial guitars to deliver a modern-day English winter reverie. Bolstered by elegant bossa nova loungers (“Loveable”) and rousing motorik pop (“Scratching at the Lid”), the album brims with years of experience and self-exploration. Miki Berenyi’s vocal cadences feel concurrently futuristic and anachronistic, like a mother’s comforting coo during a bad dream. Pins drop on the lyrical spectrum between macabre literary obscurity (“Scratching at the lid as the box goes down”) and minimalist pleasures (“Your arms/Around me/Nothing hurt”). Ultimately, Love Drips and Gathers is an exploration of sonorous space. Its indistinct coziness—webs of tremulous mellotrons and breathy moonscapes—transcend gauzy labels vainly attached.

By Hayden Merrick

16

Modest Mouse

The Golden Casket

Epic

With a pledge from head mouse Isaac Brock to not play guitar on the band’s seventh album, fans were left wondering if Modest Mouse would build on the pretty pop and epic hooks of recent past successes or if they would revert to the more introspective, peculiar, and frazzled rock of less successful, but equally compelling, releases.

Thankfully, The Golden Casket offers something new while embracing the old. The focus on songwriting remains, but with an unfamiliar approach to creating sound collages and a broken pledge—yes, guitars included—there’s plenty of music that’s immediately fetching while some requires repeated plays to absorb and appreciate its diverse nature and expanded scope.

The Golden Casket proves Modest Mouse have the staying power to remain atop the indie rock heap with their knack for harnessing a whimsical energy combined with tight nuggets of sound and fragments from diverse styles and genres to create something entirely different that is both exciting and fresh.

By Matt the Raven

17

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Carnage

Goliath

Not surprisingly, Carnage, the first album from the duo of Nick Cave and longtime Bad Seed cohort Warren Ellis, is an exercise in brooding, sweeping, cinematic atmospheres. Cultivated from the spectrum of human emotions, it plays out like an emotionally strange soundtrack to the pandemic with expressions of fear, paranoia, and hope.

The famed collaborators draw from their dense palette of musical influences to create shadowy soundscapes framed around Cave’s poetic prose and chameleonic baritone. Running the gamut from gentle and sweeping to mournful and visceral the duo carves their way through the eight tracks with conviction and dexterity.

Nick Cave has become one of the most reliable and entertaining rock icons, whose collaborations with Warren Ellis are innovative in approach and original in delivery and worthy of a top album of 2021.

By Matt the Raven

18

Snail Mail

Valentine

Matador

If Snail Mail’s 2018 debut Lush is analogous to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird—an eruption of sleepy-eyed teenage angst and unrequited love—then the glossy follow-up Valentine is Lindsey Jordan vs. the World. It’s a heartbreak battle epic with cinematic stakes, layers of harmonious orchestration, and her comfortingly husky voice brimming with authority. The title track’s hook slashes into your soul. The affecting string arrangement on “Mia” elevates you above the clouds. The swooning dream pop guitar line on “Headlock” proves that one can channel Kevin Shields in 2021 without making a B-movie Isn’t Anything. Amid a superabundance of female-fronted indie, Jordan’s soulful, honest slacker pop opus is one of the boldest records of the year.

By Hayden Merrick

19

CHVRCHES

Screen Violence

Glassnote

Taut and intensely personal, CHVRCHES frontwoman Lauren Mayberry dreams up a concept album that is the stuff of nightmares. She employs the slasher flick as a device to tackle the misogyny, toxic masculinity, and online hate hurled at her. Instead of clamming up, she lays bare her own vulnerabilities about marriage (“Final Girl”), career (“Good Girls”), and self-worth (“Asking For A Friend,” “He Said, She Said”)—while refusing to back down to naysayers. It’s a satisfying fuck-you to the patriarchy. Her band mates dutifully build the sonic blocks and electro-euphoria that underpin her lyrics, suitably, with the Prophet Moog and other such synths favored by the horror genre’s best (John Carpenter and Angelo Badalamenti). A cohesive album with multiple standouts—notably “How Not To Drown,” which has a Robert Smith feature—it is Mayberry’s deft lyricism here that will surely sway astray fans unconvinced by the band’s previous output back into the fold.

By Celine Teo-Blockey

20

Squid

Bright Green Field

Warp

Squid is that rare species of band in which the lead singer is also the drummer. Then again, the five-piece group from Brighton, U.K., is anything but conventional. Case in point: “The Narrator,” one of the 2021’s most striking singles and one of Under the Radar’s picks for Song of the Week, lasts more than eight minutes. Its propulsive path is about as predictable as the careening swerves of a Dodgem car. When guest singer Martha Skye Murphy appears midway through, it’s hard to tell whether her wordless ululations express ecstasy or terror. Squid’s lead vocalist, Ollie Judge, has a voice that’s as beguilingly strange as that of Tom Verlaine of Television, Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, and John Lydon of Public Image Ltd. Indeed, Squid seem to be the natural inheritors of PiL’s anarchic adventurousness. Utilizing twin guitars, electronics, and trumpet, Squid’s progressive post-punk can shift from turbulence to tranquility. And as second single “Paddling” illustrated, they can write hooky choruses—even if they only arrive three minutes into the song.

By Stephen Humphries

21

Courtney Barnett

Things Take Time, Take Time

Mom + Pop/Marathon Artists/Milk!

A forced hiatus from non-stop touring brings us Courtney Barnett’s most pulled in and reflexive recording to date. Subjects run from the mundane (a friend’s home remodel on “Sunfair Sundown”) to the modest (contemplating a lover’s absence on “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight”), while the similarly relaxed melodies match the mood. A document of the past few years’ quieter moments from an artist at ease with spending a little time with herself.

By Mark Moody

22

Penelope Isles

Which Way to Happy

Bella Union

The gossamer echoing guitar stylings and airy electronics on Penelope Isles’ sophomore album, Which Way to Happy, come to life as seductive and slow pop songs. But those who don’t get hypnotized by the feathery sweet warbles and instead pay close attention will find pleasure in the fine details.

The duo of siblings Jack and Lily Wolter give the songs multi-layered and textural edges that feature dabs of shoegaze, drops of post-punk, and dashes of New Wave. At times a bit romantic and twee, but instead of being overly melodramatic, the catchy and melodic tunes are tastefully adorned with an occasional slinky bassline, commercial playfulness, or reflective mood.

From the upbeat and rhythmic tracks such as “Terrified” and “Have You Heard” to the more sweeping and enigmatic lullabies of “Sailing Still” and “Miss Moon,” Which Way to Happy is sure to please all those who give it a spin.

By Matt the Raven

23

John Grant

Boy from Michigan

Partisan/Bella Union

The title track of John Grant’s fifth solo album entices the listener with a lengthy intro of Eno-esque synthesizer. When the singer eventually steps up to the microphone you may be struck anew by what a striking voice he has. The song is a deeply felt autobiographical coming-of-age reminiscence. During the hummable chorus, Grant laments, “Beware, when you go out there/They’ll eat you alive if you don’t take care/They have different rules they’re using/The American Dream is not for weak soft-hearted fools.” You come away thinking that it’s the songwriter’s strongest single since 2013’s “Pale Green Ghosts.” Then along comes the album’s main single, “County Fair”—it’s even better. It’s a pastoral piece in which Grant’s baritone floats as gently as tufts of dandelions in a breeze.

Strong tunes abound throughout the album. The American, now based in Iceland, frequently displays his characteristic wit. “I still get my DQ on with some frequency/No, I don’t mean Dairy Queen/I covered that on album three,” he quips on “Just So You Know.” The album’s flaw is its sprawling length. Its running time should have been trimmed from 75 minutes to around 40 minutes. Even so, The Boy from Michigan shows yet again why this artist should never be taken, ahem, for granted.

By Stephen Humphries

24

Arab Strap

As Days Get Dark

Rock Action

Mounting a full-scale comeback with As Days Get Dark, the 16-year gap between Arab Strap albums felt like nothing, as Scottish luminaries Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton picked up right where they left off in March. Whether it is the searing and sordid “Here Comes Comus!,” “Another Clockwork Day” digging into the minutiae of fading attraction, or the gut-punch of its epic penultimate track “Sleeper,” the duo’s signature combination of dark humor and musical eclecticism remind us of their brilliance, raising a much-needed smile or two along the way.

By Gareth O’Malley

25

Geese

Disco

Partisan

The American entry into 2021’s flurry of post-punk releases by Brooklyn’s Geese thankfully foregoes pithy commentary in favor of letting the music do the talking. Frontman Cameron Winter’s oblique and offhanded lyrics are slathered over by the dual guitar attack of Gus Green and Foster Hudson. The group’s debut is primarily a home recording given a buff up once the race to sign the band was through. A mix of youthful swagger coupled with the spindly-legged joy of discovery makes the romp through Projector a bracing one. The band was already hinting at bigger things to come before the album ever hit the street. A promise worth noting from a strong beginning.

By Mark Moody

26

Little Simz

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Age 101/AWAL

Storming out of the gate with the thunderous orchestral epic “Introvert,” the fourth album from London rapper Little Simz is her most ambitious work yet. In a year where popular hip-hop trends leaned into the stripped back and blasé, where artists routinely released bloated, uninspired albums to boost streaming numbers, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert delivers a grand assortment of ’80s funk, Afrobeat, grime, soul, and nods to the golden age of musical theater, where Simz confronts her deepest insecurities with overarching narratives and unmatched technical skill. There’s a moment on the album when you realize what you’re really listening to is the coronation of the most exciting rapper in hip-hop. She does too: “I think I need a standing ovation/Over 10 years in the game, I’ve been patient.”

By Kyle Kersey

27

illuminati hotties

Let Me Do One More

Hopeless/Snack Shack Tracks

The Los Angeles-based Sarah Tudzin delivered the one we’d been waiting for in October as her illuminati hotties project—no longer blighted by label issues—made its return in earnest, irreverent lyrics and melodic prowess very much intact. This being Tudzin, she doesn’t shy away from poignancy; closer “Growth” speaks for itself. Aided by Buck Meek of Big Thief (leaning into surf rock on “u v v p”) and Alex Menne of Great Grandpa (the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “Toasting”), Let Me Do One More delivers on the promise of opener “Pool Hopping,” even at its most pared-back: all rippers, no skippers.

By Gareth O’Malley

28

Sufjan Stevens/Angelo DeAugustine

A Beginner's Mind

Asthmatic Kitty

Zombies and demons and serial killers, oh my! Or so it goes in the film inspired world of Sufjan Stevens and Angelo DeAugustine’s A Beginner’s Mind. “You Give Death a Bad Name” was prompted by a late night watch of Night of the Living Dead. Likewise, Hellraiser III gives us “The Pillar of Souls” while Silence of the Lambs informs the scintillating “Cimmerian Shade.” The album gives workshopping a good name and the Asthmatic Kitty label mates’ voices couldn’t meld any better, as evidenced by the jauntier rhythms of the standout single, “Back to Oz.”

By Mark Moody

29

Still Corners

The Last Exit

Wrecking Light

Often and somewhat unfairly overlooked in discussions of most consistent acts from the past decade, it’s probably fair to say Still Corners have never made a bad record, and while debut album Creatures of An Hour was undoubtedly the one that put them on the map, The Last Exit arguably represents the duo’s finest hour to date. Intermittently punctuated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, The Last Exit may have actually turned out very differently had Still Corners stuck to the original tracklist and release schedule. Instead, the duo spent their downtime caused by the pandemic writing more songs that gave the album new impetus and with it, created an exquisite dream-laden soundtrack to an imaginary road trip that we’re hoping never ends.

By Dom Gourlay

30

Flock of Dimes

Head of Roses

Sub Pop

A warm, throbbing synth pad is Jenn Wasner’s greatest ally against self-flagellation and heartbreak. It forms the amorphous carpet beneath the songs on Head of Roses, the Baltimore songwriter’s second album as Flock of Dimes. Gnarled guitar rock sits beside clouds of swirling dream pop sits beside tempered, minimalist love songs.

Every great impressionist work has a shroud of obscurity through which revelations eventually emerge. Head of Roses has themes of autonomy versus connection (“I found out freedom is empty/When it’s all you have”) and the magnitude of the natural and unhurried (“Walking,” Lightning,” and “Awake for the Sunrise”). Listening to the album is like sitting on a porch watching storm clouds slowly advance but not rushing inside. In other words, confronting ominous beauty: “Fear of the world/Head of roses.”

By Hayden Merrick

31

Self Esteem

Prioritise Pleasure

Fiction

Prioritise Pleasure is more than an album title for Rebecca Lucy Taylor: it’s a guiding mantra. Set against pounding rhythms, soaring choirs, and indelible pop hooks, on her sophomore album as Self Esteem, Taylor pens a paean to radical self-acceptance. She’s massive and irrepressible on the record, filling the album with a relentless kinetic force as she traces the messy territory of heartbreak, sex, and rage. Through all the record’s highs and lows, Taylor is an unapologetic force, refusing to compromise her own power and independence. Yet she also makes room for unvarnished intimacy and caustic wit, effortlessly molding every contradiction into a behemoth record of potent pop gems.

By Caleb Campbell

32

SPELLLING

The Turning Wheel

Sacred Bones

As an Afro-Futurist imagining, Tia Cabral’s third album offers escape for the self-styled freaks on the fringes, in particular the tarot-card readers, and science fiction geeks. Split into two, the album’s first half is lighter fare featuring songs about cuddly penguins, taking inspiration from author Ursula K Le Guin (“Emperor with an Egg”) plus Disney fairy tales (“Always”) and woodland creatures (“Little Deer”). Whilst the second half is darker, with more atmospheric synths and complex orchestration—pulling from memories of being browbeaten (“Boys at School”) and her struggle between art, activism, and capitalism (“Revolution”). Her sonic imprints are an improbable mix of Kate Bush, Minnie Ripperton, and Michael Jackson. It’s not to everyone’s taste but is a fine exercise in sonic world building that is there for anyone who needs a little magic.

By Celine Teo-Blockey

33

Mdou Moctar

Afrique Victime

Matador

On their first album for Matador, Mdou Moctar continues to pull Tuareg guitar music into more expansive realms, taking the traditional assouf playing style and grafting it to Van Halen pyrotechnics and trippy production. “Asdikte Akal” is a dancefloor burner with hard rock heft; the dreamy, celebratory closer “Bismilahi Atagah” almost sounds like a Tuareg take on Sung Tongs-era Animal Collective. When it becomes safe to go out again, seeing these songs live should be as early a priority as is reasonable, but for now, Afrique Victime sounds fantastic on record.

By Dustin Krcatovich

34

The Goon Sax

Mirror II

Matador

The Brisbane, Australia-based trio flesh out their sound significantly on their Matador debut. And in doing so, up the interest level in their output tremendously. Leadoff single “In the Stone” has the dynamic of being both infectiously melodic while also maintaining a sinister sounding edge. Louis Forster and Riley Jones seamlessly trade off vocals there and again on “The Chance,” while James Harrison takes the lead on the more frenetic “Carpetry” that cuts closer to the group’s geographic forebears.

By Mark Moody

35

Black Country, New Road

For the First Time

Ninja Tune

Undoubtedly one of 2021’s most promising debuts came with Black Country, New Road’s heavily anticipated full-length record, For the first time. Though they’re often pigeon-holed into post-punk, the band consciously avoids genre confines on their debut, incorporating bits of jazz, prog rock, and more into a blur of experimental and unpredictable rock. But for all of the record’s winding and dissonant arrangements, it still remains rooted in a captivating sense of melodrama.

Singer Isaac Wood laces the album’s menacing twists and turns with howling angst, all while dropping references to everything from Kanye West and Phoebe Bridgers to “six-part Danish crime dramas.” While Black Country, New Road’s debut may be one of the most impressive of the year, it is all the more exciting because it also comes with an implicit promise: the band is just getting started and the best is yet to come.

By Caleb Campbell

36

Hovvdy

True Love

Grand Jury

Hovvdy’s True Love is a record of pure, uncomplicated bliss. Inspired by the Austin duo’s new marriages, the album sends you floating along into a warm haze of nostalgia, carried along by acoustic strums, flickers of piano, and tender harmonies. Hovvdy’s meditations on family, childhood joy, and romance offer dreamy comforts to the brokenhearted, gently immersing you in the pair’s infectious optimism. Most importantly, the record’s joy doesn’t feel shallow or unearned. Rather, it feels like hard-won contentment: the peace and wisdom gained through trials. The pair look to the future in resolute hope, promising “Even though it’s hard to/I will surely move along.”

By Caleb Campbell

37

Faye Webster

I Know I'm Funny haha

Secretly Canadian

Atlanta’s Faye Webster operates a little left of center, so it’s not surprising that she is likely the only indie musician to land an interview with ESPN this past year. Not for her athletic prowess, but for her song “A Dream With a Baseball Player,” about her imagined relationship with the Atlanta Braves’ outfielder Ronald Acuña, Jr. One of many songs off of her follow-up to Atlanta Millionaires Club that has more than a fair share of open observations that are as telling as they are, yes, funny. Not to mention Webster’s first foray into a crunchy synth powered anthem on “Cheers.”

By Mark Moody

38

St. Vincent

Daddy's Home

Loma Vista

Described pre-release as an homage to NYC singer/songwriters of the early ’70s, Daddy’s Home features another one of the sonic transformations listeners have come to expect from Annie Clark. Following the throbbing funk of lead single “Pay Your Way in Pain” and the swelling chorus of singers on its follow-up “The Melting of the Sun,” it wasn’t until listening to the full album where we could really hear the stripped-down rawness we figured she was alluding to: that’s in album cuts like “Live in the Dream,” “The Laughing Man,” and the highlights “...At the Holiday Party” and “Candy Darling.” As St. Vincent, Annie Clark hasn’t been content to settle down in any one style or genre, and on Daddy’s Home she pushes her boundaries once again.

By Austin Trunick

39

Jane Weaver

Flock

Fire

It wouldn’t be amiss to say Jane Weaver has never made a bad record. However, it also isn’t an unfair suggestion that Flock represents her finest body of work to date. If anything, Flock is living proof that pop music doesn’t have to be sickly sweet and disposable. Instead, there’s nods to Stereolab, Broadcast, M.I.A., Miley Cyrus, and even Lebanese torch songs amongst the 10 pieces here. Genres collide and happily swap numbers, while Weaver’s unabated panache for future progression ensures nothing stands still or becomes staid. As career bests go, Flock ticks every box while providing the impetus to go one better next time.

By Dom Gourlay

40

Iceage

Seek Shelter

Mexican Summer

Having emerged with guttural debut New Brigade a decade ago, Copenhagen’s Iceage have been on a journey of evolution ever since. Never ones to sit back and take the easy route, Seek Shelter represents their most diverse collection of songs to date. While steeped in the band’s early post-punk credentials, there’s elements here that recall the likes of Primal Scream and The Pogues, while Sonic Boom’s involvement as co-writer and producer gave the project extra brevity from the outset.

By Dom Gourlay

41

Elbow

Flying Dream 1

Polydor

The pandemic shaped many of 2021’s albums. In part, quarantine conditions influenced how the music was recorded. For instance, the likes of Elton John and the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai relied on Zoom sessions to create their respective U.K. number 1 albums. The members of the British band Elbow wrote songs in isolation before convening as a pod to record their ninth album live—and socially distanced—inside the empty Brighton Theatre Royal. Flying Dream 1 is a genre album of sorts—it’s a late-night album in the vein of John Martyn’s Solid Air, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, or The Blue Nile’s Hats. The understated grandeur of the title track, whose hushed piano and drums wouldn’t wake a baby, invites the listener to dim the lights for an immersive experience. Among the highlights: Singer Guy Garvey’s romantic swoon comes to the fore in the tender ballad “Six Words.” (The Mancunian endearingly pronounces “love” as “loovf.”) And “The Seldom Seen Kid,” which shares the same title as Elbow’s famous fourth album, offers a mournful elegy for the late Manchester musician Bryan Glancy. Given that every Elbow album includes its share of ruminative reveries, Flying Dream 1 isn’t exactly a radical change of direction. But it’s a welcome addition to a fine body of work.

By Stephen Humphries

42

Sleaford Mods

Spare Ribs

Rough Trade

Northern English punk-poet Jason Williamson delivers a scathing treatise to the Tories’ reign while producer Andrew Fearn soundtracks the mayhem with lean synths, sparse old school beats, and delicious electro licks. From blistering title track “Spare Ribs” to the prescient “Shortcummings,” tales are hewn from a decade of austerity—where the have-nots concede much while the have-a-lots continue to breathe rarefied air and amass more wealth—compounded by the twin disasters of Brexit and COVID. Political commentary at its finest. Full of fire, fury, and funny takedowns that never lessen the magnitude of the political class malice.

By Celine Teo-Blockey

43

Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders/London Symphony Orchestra

Promises

Luaka Bop

File this one under not only unexpected collaborations, but surely a surprise for one of the very best albums of 2021. It’s not only legendary saxophone player Pharoah Sanders’ first major album and most high-profile release in several decades, but the release that introduced Floating Points (the nom de plume of British electronic musician Sam Shepard) to a wider audience as well. This gorgeous, riveting album, a quiet one by the raucous standards of Sanders’ early works as a bandleader and his recordings with John and Alice Coltrane, works not only as a free jazz album (though it succeeds there, too) but also as an ambient album and an acid jazz album, whereby ’90s British left-field musicians adopted pioneering heroes like Chicago singer/songwriter Terry Callier. It’s even been suggested that it sounds like a sequel to the nine parts of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. In any case, this is a hypnotic, soothing, deeply satisfying listen.

By Matthew Berlyant

44

CHAI

WINK

Sub Pop

After two high energy albums in PINK and PUNK, CHAI give us a glimpse of how they are growing up in public on the similarly titled WINK. Several tours through the U.S. have seemingly made an impression on the Tokyo-based foursome. “Maybe Chocolate Chips” is a melding of R&B and hip-hop influences, where they are joined by Chicago based rapper Ric Wilson, while “ACTION” finds the group with a long-distance and empathetic view of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, built around a percolating dance-pop rhythm. But CHAI wouldn’t be CHAI if they didn’t leave room for lighter moments, like the video game blips of “PING PONG!” or the ironically titled “wink and a nod” of “Nobody Knows We Are Fun.”

By Mark Moody

45

IDLES

CRAWLER

Partisan

IDLES’ ascent over the past four years after spending the best part of a decade in obscurity is testament to their tenacity, dedication and ultimate desire to become the best at what they do. So when Crawler—IDLES’ fourth album in as many years—dropped in November, it was the sound of a band rediscovering what made them such an exciting proposition in the first place. While the lyrical subject matters remain explicitly dark, there’s parts of Crawler that are fiercely experimental compared to the band’s previous output. Almost like it could be their Metal Box or Paul’s Boutique moment. It also stuck up two very defiant fingers at their detractors while creating an enticing prospect for where their journey of discovery takes them next.

By Dom Gourlay

46

Gruff Rhys

Seeking New Gods

Rough Trade

The third album in four years from the Super Furry Animals frontman finds Gruff Rhys setting out to write a concept record about a great big mountain and instead coming home with a satchel of stories about our little human lives. The former may be less fragile than the latter, but ultimately neither are permanent. Seeking New Gods flows with the warm currents and subtly expert arrangements that Rhys introduced on Babelsberg in 2018, and emanates a welcoming glow similar to that of Super Furry Animal’s Welsh-language gem, Mwng. Another right step for a songwriter who has rarely taken a wrong one.

By Ian King

47

Mogwai

As the Love Continues

Temporary Residence Limited

Conceived remotely during the first lockdown of 2020, then produced in a similar fashion on different sides of the pond with Dave Fridmann,. As the Love Continues heralded Mogwais most commercially successful year against all the odds. Its placementing at number one in the U.K. album charts after the first week of release providedproviding a remarkable testament to the bands tenacity while celebrating their 25th year of existence. As with every Mogwai record, its the insatiable mix of subtle textures and brutal white noise that makes As the Love Continues so enduring. With more projects already underway, including a film soundtrack on the horizon, expect to hear more from messrs Braithwaite and co. in 2022.

By Dom Gourlay

48

Water From Your Eyes

Structure

Wharf Cat

Brooklyn-based duo Rachel Brown and Nate Amos built Structure out of some of the same materials and principles as their 2019 album, Somebody Else’s Song. Gently sung admissions lull and lead you down paths lined with a false sense of security. Songs are forged from hammering repetitions and choice noises, their insistent hooks finding little resistance as they scrape against soft synthetic textures. The band themselves put it well when they told Under the Radar earlier in 2021 that they “think of Structure as a high-def photo of something that’s blurry in real life.”

By Ian King

49

TORRES

Thirstier

Merge

With Thirstier, TORRES mastermind Mackenzie Scott accomplishes the rare feat of making love songs sound new and exciting again. While her fifth full-length album is by all definitions a relationship record, there’s no sickly sweet artifice to be found. Rather, the record explores the pure unabashed joy of being in love, translating it into stadium-sized indie pop.

TORRES’ thoughtful textures and evocative musicality come through in full force, but are now deployed in a concentrated barrage of towering pop hooks. “Don’t Go Putting Wishes In My Head” and “Hug From a Dinosaur” are irresistible pop gems, while Scott also finds space for sparse ambient soundscapes on “Big Leap” and skittering electronics on “Kiss the Corners.” With each track, Scott’s pure adulation engenders the same starry-eyed desire in the listener. Before long, she’ll have you confessing along with her, “The more of you I drink, the thirstier I get.”

By Caleb Campbell

50

Ducks Ltd.

Modern Fiction

Carpark

Toronto-based duo Ducks Ltd. mention in their bio that “impressive knowledge of niche pop music does not make a band.” Who says? Drawing heavily from the opposite side of the equator and adding a spin of the globe, Tom McGreevy and Evan Lewis are clearly inspired by the frenetic jangle pop rhythms of legendary New Zealand label Flying Nun’s stable of artists. The Clean particularly come to mind. And though like-minded Down Under bands such as Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and The Stroppies may mine a similar vein, it’s hard to deny the hard sparking energy of infectious tracks like “Under the Rolling Moon” and “Fit to Burst.” The contents of Modern Fiction’s 10-song dossier (Exhibits A to J, if you will) serve as irrefutable evidence that shimmery pop songs done right will never go out of style. Case closed.

By Mark Moody

51

Mega Bog

Life, and Another

Paradise of Bachelors

52

Field Music

Flat White Moon

Memphis Industries

53

The Anchoress

The Art of Losing

Kscope

54

W.H. Lung

Vanities

Melodic

55

Sam Evian

Time to Melt

Fat Possum

56

Pom Pom Squad

Death of a Cheerleader

City Slang

57

Deafheaven

Infinite Granite

Sargent House

58

Parquet Courts

Sympathy for Life

Rough Trade

59

Wednesday

Twin Plagues

Orindal

60

Indigo De Souza

Any Shape You Take

Saddle Creek

61

serpentwithfeet

DEACON

Secretly Canadian

62

Aeon Station

Observatory

Sub Pop

63

Shame

Drunk Tank Pink

Dead Oceans

64

Villagers

Fever Dreams

Domino

65

Turnstile

GLOW ON

Roadrunner

66

Bachelor

Doomin Sun'

Polyvinyl

67

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

G_d's Pee at State's End!

Constellation

68

Bobby Gillespie & Jehnny Beth

Utopian Ashes

Third Man

69

Pip Blom

Welcome Break

Heavenly

70

Viagra Boys

Welfare Jazz

YEAR0001

71

Lael Neale

Acquainted With Night

Sub Pop

72

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

Butterfly 3000

KGLW

73

Lost Girls

Menneskekollektivet

Smalltown Supersound

74

Damon Albarn

The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows

Transgressive

75

Goat Girl

On All Fours

Rough Trade

76

Beachy Head

Beachy Head

Graveface

77

Low Hummer

Modern Tricks for Living

Dance to the Radio

78

Makthaverskan

For Allting

Run for Cover

79

Saint Etienne

I've Been Trying to Tell You

Heavenly

80

Midnight Sister

Painting the Roses

Jagjaguwar

81

Baio

Dead Hand Control

Glassnote

82

Manic Street Preachers

The Ultra Vivid Lament

Sony

83

Desperate Journalist

Maximum Sorrow

Fierce Panda

84

The Joy Formidable

Into the Blue

Self-Released

85

UV-TV

Always Something

PaperCup

86

Kiwi Jr

Cooler Returns

Sub Pop

87

Public Service Broadcasting

Bright Magic

Play It Again Sam

88

Clinic

Fantasy Island

Domino

89

black midi

Cavalcade

Rough Trade

90

Allie Crow Buckley

Moonlit and Devious

Self-Released

91-100

Go to Part 2

Check out part 2, with numbers 91-100 and several honorable mentions, here.

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