We have survived 2021. It wasn’t always easy, but if you’re like us, the incredible music released this year helped you make it through.
And boy was there A LOT of great music. It’s to be expected that the lockdown would lead to most artists putting their focus on creating new music when they couldn’t tour, but it was a welcome surprise to hear how strong the quality of the music was this year.
From melodic alt rock, intimate indie folk, bombastic pop-punk to peppy ska, these albums may not have sold as much as Olivia Rodrigo or Taylor Swift, but they broke through the noise and left an impression on us. Without further ado, here is our Top Albums of 2021!
TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2021 (Bo):
- Arkells – Blink Once
I was aware of this Canadian alternative rock band prior to 2021, but hadn’t spent much time with their music. I’m very happy I changed that this year and started listening to Arkells. The first song to catch my ears was the ultimate bop that was “You Can Get It”. Featuring K. Flay, the song was an instant smash; catchy, danceable and blasting through any wall of distraction you might be faced with. As subsequent singles like the hopeful “All Roads” or the dynamic “Swing Swing Swing” were revealed, my anticipation skyrocketed to hear the final collection. It didn’t disappoint. “Liberation” is a dynamic synth-pop anthem, and if you’re not moved by the cancer narrative in “Strong”, you’re probably heartless. Coming out of a dark year like 2020, upbeat rock like Blink Once was in dire need to lift spirits, and it certainly succeeded in lifting my spirits.
2. Lucero – When You Found Me
Yes, I am quite biased in this one. Lucero have been one of my favorite bands of years. I’ve seen them live more than any other band, and even directed a music video for them. Still, I can objectively listens to their albums and separate their lesser work with their best. When You Found Me falls with the latter. After first hearing the dark 80’s rock of “Outrun the Moon”, it was clear the band had their pop sensibilities back, and had found a way to successfully mesh them with the swampier southern gothic elements of their previous album. “Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go” retains that haunting, emotional resonance of some of the band’s earliest work, while “Back in Ohio” blows things out of the water with a Warren Zevon-like narrative and Replacements-worthy riffs. And the title track stands up with the band’s best ballads. The band continues to grow and mature in exciting new ways without losing themselves in the process.
3. Angels & Airwaves – Lifeforms
It had been a while since I had taken anything released by Tom Delonge’s Angels & Airwaves project too seriously. After a couple solid early albums, further releases seemed to get bogged down in spacey instrumentals, feeling more like afterthought soundtracks to Delonge’s film work than real albums. But then in 2019, Delonge released “Rebel Girl”, the finest pop punk track he’d written in years. While another single came out that year, it was not until this year that we received the full new album. It was worth the wait. A&A had always been meant to be a synthesis of Delonge’s numerous influences; 80’s new wave, pop-punk, and stadium rock, and on Lifeforms he finally strikes the perfect balance. Tracks like “Euphoria” rage with post-hardcore guitars and jittering synths, and then soar with a shimmering stadium-rock chorus, and on “A Fire in a Nameless Town”, Delonge manages to infuse his love of Depeche Mode perfectly into an anthemic alt-pop diamond. This albums is Delonge pushing himself into new musical arenas and managing to sound perfectly comfortable in all of them.
4. Hayley Williams – Flowers for Vases / Descansos
Paramore‘s Hayley Williams made an artistic statement with her first solo album Petals for Armor, allowing her more indie/avant garde influences to take shape in her songs. Her second album, released less than a year later, was far more stripped back, but also far more emotionally accessible. With many of the songs built solely on acoustic guitars and piano, William’s beautiful voice is given plenty of room to breathe, leaving the vulnerability and pain within these very personal songs on full bare display. While the melodies still go in unexpected directions (“Asystole”), it doesn’t feel like Williams hiding behind embellishments here. Her lyrics a full of direct mentions of her daily struggles with mental health (“Over those hills, I bet you’re somewhere dreaming. I take my pills every night and in the morning” in “Over Those Hills”), or delving into painful moments from her past (see the astounding “Inordinary”). Though quiet and mellow in tone, there’s a deep power in this album that shines through.
5. The Connells – Steadman’s Wake
Though they’ve been around for over twenty years, I only recently became aware of The Connells, but with their comeback album Steadman’s Wake, they made a strong first impression. From the haunting title track, which lingers around death and cultural upheaval, to the buoyant “Burial Art”, the group’s blending of indie alternative and power pop is top notch throughout. The melodies prove addicting, with folksy harmonies delivering choruses that feel timeless. The emotional resonance is palpable, with lyrics like “Please be steady, please be stable, please be everything I’m not” from “Song for Duncan” stinging as a regret-filled plea, or the introspective “Fading In (Hardy)”, where the narrator admits “I’m fading in, and there’s never really been that much of me”. Subtly devastating, the songs here hold up with the band’s best work, and show that The Connells deserve to be met with the same admiration and reverence as groups like R.E.M. and Big Star.
6. Tash Sultana – Terra Firma
Australian guitar ingenue Tash Sultana‘s latest album is pure, beautiful chill. On Terra Firma, it feels like Tash has finally found their sound, letting their playing blend and flow smoothly into the arrangements instead of trying to take center stage. And the tracks on the album are pure vibes – songs to drift off to, to meditate to. Songs that are perfect for laying in the sun and forgetting the troubles of the world. “Coma” will put you in a good mood coma, and “Vanilla Honey” is pure musical sweetness. This is an album that will return to your playlists again and again, as it so perfectly captures a mood that we all want to feel.
7. Mod Sun – Internet Killed the Rock Star
Mod Sun has had a great year. He earned his first platinum record writing on Machine Gun Kelly‘s Tickets to My Down Fall, he began a very public relationship with my college crush Avril Lavigne (which I try not to hold against him), and released his first serious pop punk record – and it’s damn good. While his Avril collaboration song “Flames” was an alternative rock hit, it isn’t even the best song on the album. “Karma” and “Betterman” are hook-filled pop punk gold, and “Bones” soars with its huge chorus. Most surprising is the emotional effectiveness of “Prayer”, where Mod sings “I was killing myself, let’s be honest”. It’s a powerful moment of vulnerability, among an album of lyrics that will likely be written and tattooed on his fans bodies due to their relatability. Pop punk is in good hands.
8. Catbite – Nice One
Whether you think ska is making a comeback or that it has never left, one thing that can’t be argued is that Catbite are one of the best new ska bands to arise in ages. The songs on their debut album bring the hooks of No Doubt‘s best early work, clever lyrics, and pristine production. “Excuse Me Miss” has one of those choruses you’ll find yourself singing to yourself hours after you’ve heard the song, and “Asinine Aesthetic” rocks with 60’s garage attitude and girl group backing vocals that give it a unique flavor. Then there’s “Call Your Bluff”, an empowerment anthem that could have easily stood alongside Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones on the radio back in 1997. Hell, it deserves to be on the radio today, but at very least it should be on your playlists.
9. Tai Verdes – T.V.
One of the break-out stars of 2021, Tai Verdes went from working on a Verizon store to having two gold records to his name and a Billboard-charting hit. If you listen to his album, it’s no surprise why. His songs, a mix of alt pop, indie rock and a touch of soul, have a casual charm that is undeniable. Verdes’ delivery is smooth and unpretentious, and his lyrics are humorous without trying too hard to be clever (see “Drugs”, where he sings on the chorus “Sometimes I do drugs. Not hard ones, just ones that change my mind up”). The songs here feel like authentic moments from his life, whether it’s dreaming about a future with a girl (“we would have some cute kids.”) or honestly assessing his failure in a relationship (“I deserve 2 b alone”). And of course, there’s the optimistic hit “A-O-K”, which Tai Verdes will certainly be if he keeps writing songs like these.
10. Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under
The young British rocker who hit the scene strong in 2019 has decimated any fears of a sophomore slump with his second album. On Seventeen Going Under, Fender returned with songs that expand on what he did so well on his first album; big, melodic choruses that lyrics that get stuck in your head (see the title track and “Get You Down”), personal introspection (“Spit of You”) and fearless indictments of the system (“Aye”). The songs here feel filled out, adding in harmonica, saxophone (oh yes, more sax) and keys to elevate them to a stadium level sound. If Jeff Buckley had had the ambition and sonics to take him to U2/Bruce Springsteen heights, it would sound like Sam Fender.
11. The Maine – XOXO: From Love and Anxiety in Real Time
The Maine have been powerhouses in the scene for years, but being a band that never rests on their laurels, they continued to push themselves, and their latest album proves their diligence has provided results. The songs throughout the album are the hookiest, most pop-leaning they’ve ever written, especially the verified radio hit “Sticky”.
12. The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Adam Granduciel’s evolution as a songwriter has been a quick rise, but the leap from his last album to I Don’t Live Here Anymore is one most songwriters would need a few more albums to accomplish. While his singing and lyrics take clear inspiration from the master bard himself Bob Dylan (who is paid homage to on the fantastic title track), the arrangements and emotion are pure War on Drugs.
13. The Killers – Pressure Machine
The Vegas rockers show their love of Springsteen’s Nebraska-style albums on this heavily narrative-driven, acoustic affair, and pull it off wonderfully.
14. KennyHoopla – Survivor’s Guilt: The Mixtape
This rising star bring a hurricane of energy and crackling pop-punk ragers to this Travis Barker-assisted collection. “Hollywood Sucks” is so good he rightly played it twice in concert.
15. Maximo Park – Nature Always Wins
The Britpop veterans return with some of their most memorable songs in years. Tracks like “Versions of You” pack a striving romantic heart into four minutes of bright, sugary hooks.
16. Rag’n’Bone Man – Life by Misadventure
This UK artist has enough power and soul to carry an album on his voice alone, but he also gets P!nk to join him on the exquisite ballad “Anywhere Away From Here”.
17. Cold Moon – What’s the Rush
Up-and-coming indie rockers write melodies that are so subtly addictive you won’t even realize they are stuck in your head until you find yourself singing the songs aloud to yourself.
18. Blackstarkids – Puppies Forever
The songs burn and burst with cotton candy sweetness and buoyancy, even when addressing serious issues like depression and police brutality. Indie pop with smarts and heart.
19. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – The Future
The folk rock-leaning band cooks up one of the most rocking soul albums of the year, with Rateliff taking his vicious vocal range to new frontiers.
20. Greta Van Fleet – The Battle at Garden’s Gate
The classic rock-loving neophytes add a healthy dose of Dylan to their Zeppelin-aping sound and broaden their appeal massively. “Heat Above” has the potential to be a classic rock standard for the next generation.
Teenage Wrist – Earth is a Black Hole
Various Artists – THE HARDER THEY FALL Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Hayes Carll – You Get it All
TOP 5 ALBUMS OF 2021 (Melanie):
- The Orion Experience – Sugar Deluxe
2021 was a huge comeback year for The Orion Experience. They put out not one, but two albums – their first since 2013! The first album that was released in 2021, Sugar Deluxe, is my top pick for the year. I hadn’t even heard of The Orion Experience before this year, but this album danced its way into my heart, and onto repeated play on my Spotify. The album is just pure fun. It’s really what I needed to help lift my spirits in an otherwise challenging year. It kicks off strong with “Lower East Side Love Song,” will have you bopping with “Emerald Eyes,” and wraps up perfectly with “How the Story Ends.” The entire album is a gem. There isn’t a single bad track on it. Put on your dancing shoes, or roller skates, and crank up the volume loud when you give this album a listen.
2. Delta Rae – The Dark
2021 brought the release of the complimentary album to one of last year’s top picks for me. Delta Rae has proven themselves to put out strong releases time after time, and this album continues that trend of amazing music. The Dark has a darker, more moody tone than its counterpart, The Light, as one would expect by the title. Delta Rae is unafraid to write topical music that comments on current social issues, such as “All Good People.” Their vocal harmonies and musical arrangements will haunt you, but in a very, very good way. This album also houses what may arguably be my favorite song to come out of this year, “Out of the Badlands.” I was lucky enough to see them on tour this year, where they highlighted both their 2020 and 2021 albums, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve been to in a long time (and not just because of the pandemic down time for live music).
3. Bleachers – Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night
I had the honor of getting to see Bleachers play live this year, and their concert was actually my first time hearing many of their new songs off of the new album, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night. Before I left the venue, I had a brand new vinyl of this album in hand and have been listening to it a lot ever since. The album delivers not only some good dance tracks, like “How Dare You Want More” & “Big Life,” but it also has some solid ballad energy with tracks like “91” & “Strange Behavior.”
4. Kaleo – Surface Sounds
I will never NOT love the sweet, soulful voice of Jökull Júlíusson. He just has one of those voices that leaves you entranced. In their new album, Surface Sounds, KALEO once more delivers an incredibly moody, and at times lively, musical journey. I’ve been loving “Skinny” and “I Want More” for many, many months, and the rest of the album holds strong and dances around these two singles with ease and passion.
5. Illenium – Fallen Embers
While Spotify may confirm that my most listened to genre is “stomp & holler,” that doesn’t mean that I don’t love some good DJ mixes. I was a fan of the late Avicii, and ILLENIUM makes me think of Avicii very much in style, especially since each track features vocals by different artists. Every song on Fallen Embers is beautifully crafted and powerful. I honestly never thought I’d be someone to label something as “good dubstep,” but ILLENIUM knows how to deliver exactly that.
Rostam – Changephobia
One of the things I love most about Rostam‘s new album, Changephobia, is that every new track gives you a different vibe and feel. This former member of Vampire Weekend definitely holds strong as a solo artist. This album gives you many musical vibes, from indie rock, to jazz, to electronica sounds. It’s a good listen from start to finish.
You can listen to all of these albums in our Top Albums of 2021 Playlist!