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

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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

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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

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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

Review: Foxing – Draw Down the Moon

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You know that old saying “If I could, I’d give you the moon”? On Foxing’s new album, Draw Down the Moon, Foxing both asks for the moon and delivers it to us on a silver platter. 

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You can buy or stream Draw Down the Moon on Apple Music

This is, in short, a superb album. But of course it is, because Foxing never does anything less. I honestly thought they’d peaked with Nearer My God, but somehow they’ve aimed higher here and hit the mark. If Nearer My God was the “rock” in “art rock,” then Draw Down the Moon is the “art.”

The album begins softly with “737”, a song about loneliness and how it’s not sustainable. The guys compare themselves to the Mars rover who died after being on the planet for 15 years: “My battery is low / And it’s getting dark”. Conor Murphy said in the band’s press release: “This album is about cosmic significance as it relates to 10 themes.” In the first track, the bridge alludes to all nine of the tracks to follow. It’s a subtle choice, but it ties everything together in what could be seen as a chaotic album. Foxing is a calculated band. Chaos isn’t chaos for the sake of it. If we feel disjointed, it’s because they’ve decided we should feel that way.

The album was co-produced by the Manchester Orchestra folks, masters of their own craft, and you can definitely see their influence. “Where the Lightning Strikes Twice” could be mistaken for a Manchester song in a universe not far from ours.

As a longtime follower of the band (after catching them as an opener for Manchester Orchestra, funnily enough), I know better than to go into the Foxing discography looking for a casual listen. But with this album, I wish I could have turned off that analytical side. This album cuts deep. Songs about loneliness, about mental illness making it feel like “you’re swimming through mercury” (Go Down Together). Songs like “Cold-Blooded” that talk about feeling numb to an ever-changing, ever-failing world. These things matter. And Foxing knows that not only do things feel smaller when they’re talked about, but by pairing them with larger-than-life art, we can turn the things that make us nervous and the things that emotionally ail us into outlets for creativity and learning experiences.

In the title track, Conor sings “I want to show you / I can keep it all together”, but this album is a lesson in letting it fall apart, and rising above it.

5/5

by Nadia Alves

kiel_hauckNadia Alves has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.

Review: Foxing – Nearer My God

I came across Foxing in the way I come across most of my new music obsessions: Spotify curated playlists. I’m sure the band gets tired of hearing this, but “The Medic” was the track that popped up for me about a year ago that made me curious.

You can buy or stream Nearer My God on Apple Music.

Since then, my favorite song by the band has switched to “Night Channels”, a track I can’t seem to move away from. I listen to it obsessively. The video is even more enthralling. In fact, I stopped listening to the new album to go watch it. Anyway, I digress. I finally saw Foxing when they opened up for Manchester Orchestra. It was a short, but beautifully emotional set that made me fall even deeper in love with their work. That night, they played “Slapstick”, the first single from their new album, Nearer My God.

The album opens with “Dark Paradise”, which doesn’t really sound much like what we’ve come to expect from the band, although, Foxing is nothing if not genre-bending. It’s a strong track that guarantees that we won’t tire of the band anytime soon, because it takes such a sharp turn and surprises you. Their creativity and originality simply know no bounds. Exhibit A: They released their second single, the title track, in five languages: English, Spanish, French, German, and Japanese.

The third track, “Lich Prince”, slows things down and brings in that post-hardcore drawl that drew me to the band. Conor Murphy’s vocals have always been strong, but in this track, the harmonies the band make use of really shine, right next to the guitar solo. “Gameshark” speeds things back up again, bass-heavy and lyrically hard hitting. In an interview with Brooklyn Vegan, Murphy said that the song was written as a stress reliever for the band, a way to let off some steam.

With an album that jumps around like this, I generally have a problem following the narrative the band is putting before me. Nearer My God is really just about life, though, so the album just follows the way life goes. Maybe that’s why I feel like my life is all over the place? I listened to this album once thinking about what it meant and how it all connected, but I listened to it again taking it at face value and it made more sense to me. Maybe I just need to learn to follow the narrative, or maybe I just need to throw the narrative away and take it as it comes.

Track six, “Five Cups”, encases the line, “I want to drive with my eyes closed” in a soundscape that made me want to drive with my eyes closed. I don’t know whether you’ve ever listened to an album or song that hit you so deeply that you just wanted to rest in it, but I have. One of those tracks is this one. I got lost in the way it crescendos and fades down. Then I looked at the timestamp and was like “Crap, that’s nine minutes long.” I was four minutes through with more genius to come. It’s stress-relieving in a different way than “Gameshark” – it’s aesthetically pleasing.

So after that ambient mental break, we get what sounds like a symphony, which is broken in by….drum loops? Yes, because that’s Foxing. In “Heartbeats,” which may be my favorite track on the album, the band brings together two of the most wildly different sounds and creates the perfect contrast. I can’t find anything wrong with this album. “Bastardizer” has freaking bagpipes in it. The boundaries of what this band is and what they’ve done in the past have been left in the dust.

I can’t get enough of this album because there’s so much to get from it. The album touches on the frailty of life and how we choose to spend it. It’s not political, it’s not an angry tirade. It’s just relatable. Each musical and lyrical choice was made with thought to how it would affect the sound as a whole. It’s an album seething with intelligence and diligence. Every note was chosen and designed, and the effort the band put into Nearer My God makes it a joy to listen to.

5/5

by Nadia Paiva

kiel_hauckNadia Paiva has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.