The Best Albums of 2021

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This is the year that everything was supposed to get back to normal. Well, that didn’t happen. But many of us did begin to dip our toe back into this new version of what life looks like. We went to a few concerts, saw our friends and family, and clung to the things that bring us joy. It goes without saying that music is a big part of that.

Many of the albums that made our list this year share a common theme: finding the strength it takes to face adversity and rise above. Be it battling the perils of heartbreak and adolescence (Olivia Rodrigo), overcoming gatekeepers of an aging genre (Spiritbox), or standing in the shadows of who we used to be (Foxing), so many of the artists we love found their footing and crafted something that speaks to our hearts.

Wherever this year found you in your journey, we hope you found music to walk alongside you and give you life. Here are a few of the albums that did that for us in 2021. Take a look!

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15. Noah Gundersen – A Pillar of Salt

A Pillar of Salt is the definition of a piece that snuck up on me. Noah Gundersen spent time in a remote cabin in the Pacific Northwest, much like his contemporary, Bon Iver, and came out with a piece of art for the ages. Of course I kept it in the back of my mind when it had released and was interested in it for my casual listening, but when I finally spent some time with it, I regretted not shouting about it from the rooftops in the way it deserves. Indie pop vibes that would make Sufjan shed a tear, religious allusions that stun seminary students, and an under-the-radar Phoebe Bridgers feature — A Pillar of Salt has it all. It’s devastating, it’s lovely, it’s gentle, it’s hard hitting. It’s perfect. – Nadia Alves

J-Cole-The-Off-Season

14. J. Cole – The Off-Season

Since his arrival on the scene, J. Cole has seemingly been chasing the admiration of the rap community at large. 2014 Forest Hills Drive showed promise, but ultimately, Cole’s biggest challenge was being shadowed by so many vibrant artists pioneering new territory in hip hop. On The Off-Season, he finally leans fully into his greatest strength: rapping. The Off-Season is a masterclass in the art of technical wordplay and punchline delivery. The bells and whistles are few and there isn’t a single trend to be chased. Instead, we’re treated to a J. Cole who seems content in his standing, but driven to bend our ears back toward the sound that made hip hop such a sensation in the first place. Call him a relic if you like, but it’s impossible to deny the gravity of The Off-Season. Freed from expectation, it’s finally exciting for rap fans to dream about what Cole might be capable of. – Kiel Hauck

Van-Weezer

13. Weezer – Van Weezer

Being a Weezer fan is to not know what to expect when new music is released. In the case of Van Weezer, the Van Halen inspired rock album was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When it finally released in Spring 2021, it was exactly what a summer album should be: loud, fun and familiar. Weezer’s tribute to anthem rock simultaneously indulges in glitzing guitars while maintaining the crunchy rock that the band is known for. Having already released a stellar surprise album earlier in the year (OK Human), Van Weezer is shocking in just how fun it is to listen to. For an album paying homage to another band, it sits strong in the mountain of Weezer’s best albums. – Kyle Schultz

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12. Dan Campbell – Other People’s Lives

There is always an album toward the end of the year that blows up my year end lists and forces me to make hard decisions. This year it’s Other People’s Lives by frontman of The Wonder Years, Dan Campbell. The man is so accomplished these days, it feels pigeonholing to refer to him as the lead singer of The Wonder Years. With his affinity for Americana and his soulful voice, he brings the finer points of reality to the surface with this, his first official solo project. Each line carefully crafted and placed with the care of a jeweler, his reflections on family and childhood remind us that maybe this place we call home can be quite all right sometimes. – Nadia Alves

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11. Architects – For Those That Wish to Exist

With the release of Holy Hell in 2018, grieving the loss of fallen comrade Tom Searle, it felt like the closing of a book on one of modern metalcore’s giants. But Architects had more to give. This new chapter begins with For Those That Wish to Exist, an album faithful to the band’s roots that has its eyes set on forward motion. Who could’ve imagined a track like “Animals” sounding so full of life and fury or the infectious drive of “Giving Blood”? Architects spread their wings across these 15 tracks, experimenting with new sounds, like the glitchy “Flight Without Feathers” or the roaring horns on “Dead Butterflies”. For Those That Wish to Exist opens a new door of possibilities for the band, and the metalcore genre at large, but it’s the album’s message that is of utmost importance. “What would you do to stay alive if the planet was burning?” Sam Carter asks us on the album’s second track, “Black Lungs”. It’s a thesis statement that uncovers the true drive and purpose for the band’s new era. – Kiel Hauck

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10. Kennyhoopla – Survivor’s Guilt: The Mixtape

Kennyhoopla’s debut into the scene in 2020 was a refreshing take on indie rock and emo that left listeners wondering how he would top himself. Survivor’s Guilt: The Mixtape// answered by leaning hard into glittering power pop guitar riffs and absolutely thunderous drums that make it an instant classic. The collaboration with Blink-182’s Travis Barker is a playground for Kenny to test every aspect of his vocal range, from whispers to screamo to anthemic melodic choruses in songs that don’t take themselves as seriously as his first EP. While Survivor’s Guilt revels in nostalgia, its greatest strength is how much energy and possibilities it brings to the genre. – Kyle Schultz

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9. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

When Little Oblivions was announced in October 2020 with the heart-wrenching single “Faith Healer”, I was excited and ready to be destroyed in the way only Julien Baker can do. This album, to put it mildly, is alive. The full band sound against Julien’s gentle voice is the perfect addition to her oeuvre. It is the most natural progression we could have received. Oftentimes, an acoustic artist will take the band route and head straight for overblown synths and make a jumble of their discography, but Julien knows where to hold back. The big moments are big, and the small, intimate moments we know and love from her become somehow bigger. An album about heartbreak and the sickening way that it becomes just another feeling in the back of our minds is the perfect cultural response to *gestures to society* whatever this is. I love her for it. – Nadia Alves

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8. Lil Nas X – Montero

Montero was sure worth the wait, huh? When Lil Nas X introduced us to “Old Town Road” all the way back in 2019, it signified the unstoppable fluidity of genre for a new generation of artists. Montero, the proper debut album from Lil Nas X, feels fully liberated from labels. It’s a pop extravaganza with a kitchen sink of influences that are each perfectly painted with queer spirit, resulting in something that feels as truly enjoyable and familiar as it is unique. What elevates it to album-of-the-year discussion is Lil Nas X’s sleight of hand. Montero, for all of its glimmering and celebratory sound, is sinking in sadness. “These days, I’m way too lonely” he sings on “That’s What I Want”, a track that you could play in tandem with “Hey Ya” on a wedding dance floor. His chorus of, “I want someone who’ll love me” is devastating in the context of an album where he mines through the pain of sudden, but seemingly hollow fame and faux admiration from those close to him. As impressive as it is to behold, Montero is also wise beyond its years. – Kiel Hauck

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7. Real Friends – Torn in Two

Creating new music after the loss of a lead singer is an intimidating task for any band. To create music that not only pays homage to the former singer’s sound while crafting a natural path forward is another task altogether. New vocalist Cody Muraro’s debut not only exceeds expectations for his ability to handle former vocalist Dan Lambton’s emotional depth, he finds his own rhythm with the confidence and power of the scene’s greatest. Most bands struggle to find their sound again after such a dramatic shift, but Real Friends pull together to hone their sound for an experience far more engaging and stronger than it has any right to be. The fact that the band are already recording new songs together is only more evidence that they may be in a synchronization that most bands only hope to achieve. – Kyle Schultz

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6. Hayley Williams – Flowers for Vases / Descansos

Last year when Hayley Williams released her much anticipated first solo album, Petals for Armor, I don’t think many of us realized what an important part of the Paramore / women in music / mental health awareness stories the album would be. When she released Flowers for Vases / descansos, I definitely didn’t see it coming. Where the first chapter was brazen and in-your-face independence, this second installment cuts deeper. It’s a story of a woman who wanted so badly to be above the noise in her personal life and simply couldn’t for a time. This is the raw side of Hayley, and maybe a side of her we won’t see again for a while. Either way, where Petals was about Hayley rising from the ashes to save face, descansos is about saving herself for herself. – Nadia Alves

If_I_Can't_Have_Love,_I_Want_Power_by_Halsey

5. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Some would like you to believe that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were able to finally harness Halsey’s potential and channel it into something worthy of critical praise. But while their soundscapes certainly prove to be the perfect canvas for the story of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, the punk spirit has always run deep in the work of Halsey in myriad ways. Here, their songwriting coalesces into one intertwined and succinct body of work. Last year’s Manic worked because of its maniacal changes of pace and genre. If I Can’t Have Love is the opposite. That both albums are a masterclass in songwriting and storytelling, providing different yet beautiful sides of one of alt pop’s most essential artists speaks volumes to Halsey’s abilities. Besides, what do Reznor and Ross know about the horrors of pregnancy and childbirth? No, they’ve simply provided another fascinating sonic playground for Halsey to stake her claim as one of this decade’s most exciting artists. – Kiel Hauck

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4. Graduating Life – II

Graduating Life is the type of band you hope every artist is: erratic, emotional and intense. The project of Mom Jeans guitarist Bart Thompson, II explores the conflict of fighting one’s own inner demons and stagnation in an emotional experience that mixes intense lyrical ideas with equally intense music that jumps from tempo to tempo and indulges in guitar solos at the exact moment you hope it will. II somehow manages to blaze an identity all its own while feeling reassuringly familiar. The path that Graduating Life has forged is what all bands should aspire to achieve—a unique sound that drives the genre forward while also paying homage to what came before. – Kyle Schultz

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3. Foxing – Draw Down the Moon

When I choose a top album for the year, my rubric starts off as ridiculously open and almost anything can slip through if I listen to it enough in the mindset of what’s “best.” What always surprises me, however, is that it’s the albums that I move past after their release that sneak back up on me and impress me all over again.

With Foxing’s Draw Down the Moon, I got into it almost obsessively for a couple of weeks. My Spotify algorithm was deeply affected by it, and I found myself with the title track on repeat, both in the car, out of the car, and in my head. In choosing my top album, I’ve thought a lot about what takes this one to the forefront. It’s not only the creativity that Foxing brings to everything they touch that keeps their art refreshing, it’s the relatability. Where another artist in the prog-rock scene can end up being gaudy and overzealous in their attempts, Foxing never is. Whenever they release, it’s guaranteed to be at the top for me.

There is no other band in the scene like this. Their live shows are full of energy and interesting instrumentation, and it feels natural. The chaos is part of what makes the band who they are. Conor’s vocals take listeners on a journey, and in Draw Down the Moon, it’s the most ambitious and intelligent journey the band has embarked on thus far. – Nadia Alves

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2. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue

What’s that they always say about pressure forming diamonds? For well over a year, Canadian metal act Spiritbox sprinkled a rapidly growing fanbase with singles, seeming to up the ante (and volume) with each release. By the time the band’s debut was set to arrive, the bar had simply been raised too high for the band to deliver on the promise of those early nuggets. Right? Apparently not. As it turns out, Eternal Blue is one of the most electrifying debuts the genre has seen in recent memory.

Part of what makes the experience of Eternal Blue so thrilling is that it brings Spiritbox as a band fully into view, weaving multiple experimental facets into something cohesive. Be it the colossal crash of “Holy Roller” or the more subdued and simmering sounds of “The Summit”, Eternal Blue just works from every angle, thanks in large part to vocalist Courtney LaPlante. Her staggering vocal range both soothes and punishes across the album’s 11 tracks, just as guitarist Michael Stringer shifts pace at every step along the way.

The band seems fully aware of the challenge they set before themselves with those wild moments of introduction. LaPlante tunnels through her mental state throughout Eternal Blue, balancing her self-doubt with flashes of confidence. On the bridge of penultimate track “Circle With Me”, she bellows, “I held the power of a dying sun / I climb the altar and I claim my place as God”. Interpret as you see fit, but suffice it to say, Spiritbox have injected a much needed dose of energy into a metal scene fully in need of their kind of new blood. – Kiel Hauck

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1. Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR

There is little doubt that Olivia Rodrigo was a breakout sensation of 2021. The release of SOUR was one of the few actual musical events of the year, spawning not only several hit singles, but almost single handedly revitalized pop punk as a genre for a younger generation who either hadn’t heard it before or had stopped listening to it altogether. 

Rodrigo seamlessly blends genres across pop punk, emo and pop in a way that sounds startlingly fresh and familiar in equal measure. While single “good 4 u” became one of the anthems of the summer—appearing in commercials and sung in bars across the country—the highlight of SOUR is the intense emotional depth of Rodrigo’s lyricism.

Rodrigo uses SOUR as a conduit to explore not only the transition from adolescence to adulthood, but the absolute depths of emotion and heartbreak. Her vocal abilities aren’t just impressive in and of themselves, but her use of intonation of specific phrases strikes to the depth of the soul (“traitor”).

Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album was one of the few modern phenomena that sent shockwaves through the music scene. If her first foray into a solo career can make this much of an impact, it’s impossible to do anything but wait anxiously for what experience and ambition bring to the table in the future. – Kyle Schultz

Honorable Mention

Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed
Turnstile – Glow On
Silk Sonic – An Evening with Silk Sonic
Willow – Lately I Feel Everything
CHVRCHES – Screen Violence

Posted by Kiel Hauck

The Best Albums of 2020

Mercifully, 2020 is winding to an end. Not that a simple turn of the calendar will solve all of our problems, but as we reach the end of the year, there is a lot to process and reflect on – and maybe even learn from. One thing that has been a constant for the team at It’s All Dead this year is music. Music as a reprieve, music as a distraction, music as a friend. So we take a moment away from the dread to focus on some albums that brought us joy and helped us through the toughest moments of the past year.

A quick note before we dive into the list: Our goal each year is to give a clear representation of the music that mattered to us the most while also reflecting the music that simply mattered. The larger the area in the middle of that Venn diagram, the higher it ranks on the list. Noticeably absent on this year’s list is the album that arguably mattered the most: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

During our team conversations as we began working on our end-of-the-year features, we realized that none of us had spent enough time with the album to warrant it making the list without it feeling extremely disingenuous. Right or wrong, we made the call to leave it off while acknowledging the impact of the album. If you haven’t heard it, take a listen.

So here we go. Take a look – and as always – let us know your favorite albums of the year in the replies!

15. Hot Mulligan – You’ll Be Fine

I feel like I often end up pulling some wild cards into our year-end lists, and this year my wild card is You’ll Be Fine. I meant to write about it when it released in March, but this year took a lot out of me which translated to a lot more listening than writing. For me, that meant returning to this Hot Mulligan album again and again, especially over the summer. It’s quintessential pop punk, which is both right up my alley and easy to get into. They explored more thoughtful songwriting on this album compared to their previous projects, moving closer to a Wonder Years level of consideration in their production. Even though I enjoyed their first album Pilot, this album makes me truly excited for the trajectory of this band: Up. – Nadia Alves

14. Knuckle Puck – 20/20

Though Knuckle Puck have been a growing force within the scene for years, the ominously named 20/20 is their most cohesive and well-structured album to date. Somehow finding the magic of normalcy, the album stands in contrast to the year it was released in and breathes fresh life into a genre that can quickly sound redundant—the midwest pop punk scene. 20/20 reminds the listener not to back away from the problems in their life, but instead reflect and learn on the experiences. Weaving traditional emo punk against some experimental tracks on the band’s signature sound, 20/20 finds Knuckle Puck forging ahead with a fire behind them that can only see the good even when it stares into the everyday horrors we all face.  – Kyle Schultz

13. Stand Atlantic – Pink Elephant

When pop punk is at its best, it allows us to lower our inhibitions, feel our feelings, and join a safe community chorus of fellow voices caught in the fray. Depending on who you ask, it’s been a while since that experience rang true, but Sydney, Australia, act Stand Atlantic are intent on reviving the spirit. Pink Elephant, the band’s sophomore effort, is everything a great pop punk release should be while constantly stretching its wings into new territory. Vocalist Bonnie Fraser unravels the tangles that hold her back, singing “My guts keep falling out / And I’m starting to disintegrate / I’ll carry on / Yeah, it’s just like that” on the album’s opener. Call it a lament if you want, but it works better as a thesis statement on forging ahead. – Kiel Hauck

12. Neck Deep – All Distortions Are Intentional

This is the first and only album on my list that is truly escapist. A concept album about fulfilling our emo dreams in a world where we truly care about others is a necessary course of action that could make true change if we implemented it in the real world. Easily one of the most positive and thought-provoking albums to come from the pop-punk genre this year, All Distortions Are Intentional is another addition to Neck Deep’s maturing discography, and a project by a band that has truly come into their own form of activism and wave-making. – Nadia Alves

11. New Found Glory – Forever + Ever x Infinity

New Found Glory albums are mostly easy to predict: loud, catchy and filled with easy sing-along choruses. Forever + Ever x Infinity excels in that it acts as an album filled with fairy tales. The band lean heavily on their roots of writing songs about relationships, but through a lens of maturity and humor. The result is an album that both reflects on the band’s roots in pop punk, as well as presses forward with an easycore crunch and shining pop choruses (“Greatest of all Time”). Sometimes cheesy, sometimes hopelessly romantic, New Found Glory’s 10th album acts as a perfect followup to the much celebrated Self-Titled album by reflecting on the themes of that record with a middle-aged point of view and the sobering reality that only time can grant. – Kyle Schultz

10. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

Hip hop fans waited patiently for the fourth installment from rap duo Run the Jewels, but RTJ4 actually arrived early. With the release date suddenly pushed forward in the midst of protests against police brutality due to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery, Run the Jewels owned the moment and captured the national outrage. Like all previous Run the Jewels albums, RTJ4 is rife with rattling bass-lines and rapid fire lyrics from Killer Mike and El-P, but this installment feels like pointed protest music right from the jump (“Yankee and the Brave”). Maybe revolution music is a more apt descriptor. – Kiel Hauck

9. All Time Low – Wake Up, Sunshine

Wake Up, Sunshine is All Time Low’s best album in a decade, perfectly balancing the pop sensibilities the band have been striving for with the punk rock buzz that earned them an adoring audience. The album is mature and reflective, but also looks confidently forward with a style that hopefully comes to define the band moving forward. A thematic sister album to fan favorite Nothing Personal, Wake Up, Sunshine highlights the growth of the band (“Some Kind of Disaster”), as well as emphasizes their storytelling ability (“Wake Up, Sunshine”) and features the best song the band has written in years (“Sleeping In”). – Kyle Schultz

8. Halsey – Manic

Manic shouldn’t work. The third full-length album from Halsey is a mess. But like paint crawling itself across the canvas, the idiosyncrasies begin to intertwine, giving unique views of mental illness and the weight of fame as you zoom in and out of the portrait. Halsey’s greatest strength as an artist has always been her vulnerability and willingness to display her deepest fears in a way that feels more than relatable. With Manic, she somehow delivers her most cohesive work despite there being no clear genre. Simply change tracks to switch between country, rock, R&B, and more. The navigation of it all feels as honest and messy as any great therapy session should. – Kiel Hauck

7. Soccer Mommy – Color Theory

Many of the albums that ended up sticking out to me this year dealt with the heavy things. That is in part because I’m a heck of a pessimist, and also because the year we’ve had has been made for us pessimists. With Color Theory, Sophia Allison showed us contrast. With the color triad of yellow, blue and grey, she artfully wove a true story about loss, illness and grief – something too many of us have experienced in some way or another this year. I’m a sucker for her lo-fi sound, and it definitely added some variety to my music this year. Hopefully, Sophia Allison should be in for a great next couple of years as she rises in the indie pop sphere. – Nadia Alves

6. The Weeknd – After Hours

We were merely one week into quarantine and fear when The Weeknd dropped After Hours, an album that eerily captured the feelings of isolation so many of us were (and still are) feeling. On surface level, the album reads like textbook Tesfaye, but closer examination reveals deep and fascinating artistic maturity. After Hours studies remorse and self-reflection on the other side of a hedonistic ride. Here, the blinding lights and shimmering boulevard are blurry and distant – something to long for, but not before a winding back road of questioning and self-loathing. – Kiel Hauck

5. KennyHoopla – how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//

KennyHoopla is the type of artist all musicians dream of being. His newest EP,  how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//, perfectly blends elements of R&B, emo, new wave and pop, among other genres, to create a bridge across the realm of music. Although just a few songs in length, KennyHoopla takes advantage of each moment by weaving an intensely honest record filled with admissions of inadequacy and fantasticism (“dust//”). Delivered with emotional depth and the intensity of a superstar, KennyHoopla sounds vibrantly original and deeply nostalgic. In just six songs, his EP accomplishes more with its time than some musicians do in their entire careers. – Kyle Schultz

4. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor

When I preordered my copy of Petals for Armor on vinyl, I did so with the expectation that it would be both a great album and my top album of the year. While it didn’t quite top my list, it felt like an album that truly mattered – an album she wrote for herself rather than for a mainstream audience. I love Petals, and I think it’s the most important project to come from Hayley Williams. She truly explored and processed a lot of things through the album, and she took us along for the ride and prompted us to be more introspective and openminded when it comes to taking care of our mental health. She brought up a lot of personal feelings regarding loss for me, and in turn, I ended up dealing with some of the things I had pushed away. I’m grateful for that. – Nadia Alves

3. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

English singer and songwriter Dua Lipa showed flashes of what was to come with her 2017 self-titled debut, but chose to shed away any preconceived notions of powerhouse pop with Future Nostalgia, an album bubbling with disco and dance spirit. Everything about it works, specifically because Dua Lipa takes full control of her art in every way without the slightest hint of restraint. 

The album never slows down, even as it veers between lanes, blurring the lines between its influences and Dua’s own original, melodic concoctions. “You want a timeless song / I want to change the game”, she tells us mere seconds into the album. A factory-made pop star she is not. What a fabulous invitation to lean into the experience and dance away the aches of the shittiest year in recent memory. – Kiel Hauck

2. Taylor Swift – folklore

Releasing one career-best album is a crowning achievement for any artist, but to deliver two within a year is something special. Swift’s surprise album folklore perfects her ability to tell a story by blending personal stories and fictional characters in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to tell which is which. Folklore excels as the perfect representation of who Swift is as an artist by stripping away everything that we thought made a Taylor Swift album—the glamorized production values, over-the-top choruses and the electrifying pop elements that have punctuated her recent albums. At its base level, folklore is an indie album of sweet songs (“mirrorball”), but the songs are intimate, intricate pieces of art with as much depth and scope as a fleshed-out pop hit.

Unafraid of the silence between notes, folklore puts the melody and story first and foremost. The album strips away all expectations fans had of who Swift is as an artist by showing them something better. Soft, sincere and honest even when fictional, Swift has reinvented her career by stripping her music to its essentials and finding just as much, if not more, meaning in each song (“mad woman”, “betty”). – Kyle Schultz

1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

This year’s top album was actually quite a difficult and personal debate for me, but after a lot of reflection and back and forth, the bell rang and I lifted Phoebe Bridgers’ hand as Punisher was declared the winner. Her gentle delivery and poignant writing was a welcome break for me this year, a year when I’ve been so up in arms about — well, just about everything. It gave listeners something to direct their sadness and confusion at for 40 minutes and 37 seconds.

Phoebe didn’t shy away from the harsh reality of her life and her past in Punisher, and the raw honesty is what has kept me coming back throughout the latter half of the year. It takes a lot for me to consider an album as the best, and not only is it the best album of the year, it’s the best in Phoebe’s discography. She’s showed her maturity and individuality here, and that counts for everything in my book. – Nadia Alves

Honorable Mention

PVRIS – Use Me
Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
Lady Gaga – Chromatica
Blaqk Audio – Beneath the Black Palms
The Bombpops – Death in Venice Beach

Posted by Kiel Hauck