1. Turnstile - Glow On
Baltimore hardcore band Turnstile, hands-down, has made an album that will be remembered as one of the quintessential sounds of 2021. Heavy in its delivery, but just under that surface is a fantastic showcase of funk, groove, nods to 80's thrash metal, pop hooks, and overall a fun return to heavy rock. Although their past records have been more aligned with today's hardcore sound, this record made many believe a sound as jarring as Nirvana's Nevermind could make it back into the mainstream. Abrasive, but undeniable. Not to over-sell this album because it's not Nevermind, but it is Glow On, an album that sticks out amongst an otherwise reasonably average year in music. From their single "Holiday," used in Tik Toks, to impressing many on Late Night Seth Myers, Turnstile could prove loud, aggressive mainstream rock is far from dead.
2. Wild Pink - A Billion Little Lights
The Brooklyn-based heartland rock act Wild Pink has bands like The War On Drugs to thank for the resurgence in the sound of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. However, what songwriter John Ross brings to the band's third and most spectacular album, A Billion Little Lights, is that incredible pop hook that made their predecessors successful in the '80s and '90s. Wild Pink indeed finds themselves on this record, allowing their more arena-rock impulses to take over. Drawing from influences like Taylor Swift and Coldplay allowed their beautiful landscape-driven heartland sound to flourish. This band is one to watch for as they only continue to get better on each album.
3. Ryley Walker - Course In Fable
Before his twelfth studio project, Ryley Walker coined the term "Post Wook." A term that I felt to be very revealing of my own personal aesthetic. A little on the nose for many. Someone who is "Post Wook" is at its base a fan of guitar-driven instrumental music. They, at one point, were deeply into bands like The Grateful Dead, Dave Matthews Band, and Phish. Secretly, or in my case not so secretly, they are still very much into those artists and their jam contemporaries. However, their music palette had "matured" to artists like Radiohead or took a deep dive into all forms of jazz, mainly focusing on Miles Davis' late 60's experimental phase. It is essentially a growing branch of Dad Rock without getting too off track. This year Ryley Walker dubbed himself the king of that sound. With Course In Fable, Walker could combine all of his past work and truly find a direction in his sound and hopefully for years to come. Heavily influenced by the Peter Gabriel years of Genesis, Walker creates this prog, jam-infused singer-songwriter journey. The album comes after his recent sobriety and moving out of New York City to the peaceful setting of Vermont. This is by far Walker's most accessible and focused work. Walker has genuinely given a face to a sub-genre that he coined by giving in to his most indulgent and personal influences.
4. The War On Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore
Maybe my favorite artist currently making music is The War On Drugs. If you were brainwashed into Classic Rock at an early age like I was, you know that is a bygone era in many ways. For better or worse, artists now have to truly find a way to continue the sound of Classic Rock without sounding like a cheap knockoff or just revisiting old territory. For a little over a decade now, singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel has slowly perfected his craft of resurging the sound of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Warren Zevon, and of course Bruce Springsteen while still building off of what they created. Turn on the last three records of The War On Drugs, and you will find a mix of classic rock and indie reference points everywhere. But, on I Don't Live Here Anymore, the now fully formed band no longer sounds like a Granduciel studio band. They instead sound ready to perform in arenas around the world. Not only embracing the sounds of their Heartland archetypes but taking from 80's and 90's arena professionals like U2, Genesis, even with moments of Def Leppard, within their choruses on the title track "I Don't Live Here Anymore." With this record, The War On Drugs has comfortably sat alongside bands like Tame Impala as future festival headliners and the continuation of rock music.
5. Illuminati hotties - Let Me Do One More
Witty, cathartic, chaotic, colorful, and utterly fun. Let Me Do One More is the second record from indie producer and singer-songwriter Sarah Tudzin. An album that's hard to pin down to one genre as it jumps from post-punk, pop-punk, riot girl, candy pop, to even country western sounds at times. Tauzin has been an artist to watch for some time as she has been the engineer and producer behind several artists like Weyes Blood, Porches, and Tim Heidecker, to name a few. Now, performing her own material, Tudzin can showcase her humor, versatility, and unique approach to vocals and songwriting. On songs like, "MMMOOOAAAAYAYA," Tudzin jumps between voices as if she has a multiple personality episode. The highlight comes on the track, "uvvp" featuring Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek on backing vocals, giving a quick monolog and guitar. Meek's Texas twang is unmistakable as Tudzin gives an almost Phil Spektor-ESC pop performance that merges into a 90's riot girl chorus. If all of these genres intrigue you at least, you must check out this record. It won't disappoint.
6. Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee
An highly anticipated album, Michelle Zauner's third record under the name Japanese Breakfast offers a stylish, sleek portrait of the state of indie rock/pop in 2021. Jubilee was shelved for some time to be released as the pandemic had eased. Zauner said she wanted this record to serve as a celebration and ease the pain of a tumultuous year. It also coincides with the release of her book Crying in H Mart, which debuted at No. 2 on the NYT's bestseller list. Japanese Breakfast has come a long way from the fantastic dream-pop of the Soft Sounds from Another Planet. With so much vibrance, joy, and colorfulness Zauner seems to embrace her pop tendencies, and the result is a beautiful album that is simply fun to put on. With reference points to 80's MTV pop, to essentially the last ten years of indie music all blended into one.
7. Origami Angel - Gami Gang
Adolescent frustrations and pandemic-fueled emotions are on full display in Gami Gang, the double album by D.C. emo punks Origami Angel. "What kind of god makes kids think when they're not even in school?" As said by the character Dewey on "Malcolm in the Middle" and sampled by Origami Angels in the song "Noah Fence." A clip that evokes both nostalgia and humor for listeners of a certain age who remember the show. However, it gets to the larger issue at hand: how difficult it is being a kid in general, let alone in 2021. The D.C. duo of vocalist and guitarist Ryland Heagy and drummer Pat Doherty are clearly reaching for musical peaks and on this new and ambitious record and throughout, they find themselves pushing the genre of fifth-wave emo to new limits.
8. John Mayer - Sob Rock
John Mayer has had a career that we will look back and be able to appreciate as it continues to age. Critics are already revisiting his debut album, Room For Squares, as it turned 20 this year. Many call it an influence for this surge of pop singer-songwriters that have emerged in the past few years. There is truly a connection that could be made from Mayer to artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Faye Webster. However, 20 years later, Mayer has leaned into his most Dad Rock influences. Helping front Dead & Company with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead each summer, filling out stadiums, and enjoying the second half of his career. So when it came time for his new solo record, Mayer took his time releasing it. Two years ago, Mayer flexed his ability to still write an undeniably catchy pop song with the groovy New Light, but after that, it was radio silence. Then Mayer began to tease new music that harkened back to Springsteen's Tunnel of Love and Tom Petty's 90's run. However, when you listen to the album in its entirety, you hear much more of slick Mark Knopfler guitar influence and the polished Dire Straits' production on Brothers in Arms. With the loneliness and uncertainty of a mid-career Springsteen record. It's clear that Mayer still has more to say and the ability to land on the charts while making a fully fleshed-out album. With tracks like "Wild Blue," you could see Mayer beginning to ease into his more Dad Rock roll in music.
9. Adele - 30
Is there anyone else who can make the entire planet feel their pain while simultaneously forcing them to indulge in their music by its sheer catchiness? Adele has created an unmatched career. Only artists like Whitney Houston, Amy Whinehouse, or Aretha Franklin have garnered both overwhelming critical acclaim and popularity through just their undeniable voices. You might as well just give her all of the Grammy's now. Of course, that special mix of pop songwriting is needed for all of those artists to be successful. However, each of them is able to convey deeply personal and painful moments in their lives through their vocal prowess and painful honesty. With recordings of Adele's child throughout the album, you are put in the viewpoint of Adele as she copes with her divorce, the effects of heartbreak, and where she goes from here. An incredibly relatable subject matter that she can find new territory on. A normally reclusive artist finally comes out of her shell and is ready to embrace this new part of her career on, 30.
10. Olivia Rodrigo - SOUR
"I can't even parallel park…" is there a more relatable moment of a teenager's plight? Miniscule in the grand scheme of things, however, to Olivia Rodrigo it probably seems like that gateway to the next stage of her life and that escapism she so desperately searches for on SOUR. Not since Billie Eilish's debut has a teen artist connected with not only her generation but a mass audience. This collection of songs is at its base an ode to being a teenager and with obvious influences from bands like Paramore. However, her brutal honesty and angst could be traced back to artists like Alanis Morissette and Avril Lavigne. SOUR is an exciting beginning to a career that could evolve in a lot of interesting ways.
11. Deafheaven - Infinite Granite
I like to say that Deftones are like The Cure of metal or Nu-Metal, whatever you want to categorize them as. If that's the case, then Deafheaven have now become the Slowdive of Black Metal or Metal in general. The critically celebrated, and often maligned by heavier metal fans, metal band took a complete 180 to their sound. Always having leaned into their more shoegaze influences, songwriters George Clarke and Kerry McCoy decided to leave their black metal sound completely off of their latest record, Infinite Granite. On this record, Deafheaven continues to venture into this cinematic sound that makes you feel at times as though you're floating in space. It's accessible, beautiful, and an incredibly authentic ode to 90's shoegaze.
12. Manchester Orchestra - The Million Masks of God
Atlanta based indie rock lifers Manchester Orchestra took four years to make their follow up to their 2017 A Mile to The Black Surface, but it was well worth the wait. Building off the sound of their previous work, Manchester Orchestra's songwriter Andy Hull continues to tackle topics of religion and relationships through grandiose soundscapes. Long gone are the days of emo-indie punk. Now Manchester Orchestra strives for bigger stages, bigger sounds, and bigger ideas. They are something closer to a Smashing Pumpkins or a My Morning Jacket. A big sounding alternative rock band.
13. Faye Webster - I Know I'm Funny haha
Faye Webster's career although early hints that she'll be around for a long time to provide fans with her deeply personal but humorous songwriting. On I Know I'm Funny haha, Webster feels akin to artists like Neil Young with her raw approach to songwriting. A self proclaimed lover of first takes, Webster loves to come up with an idea in the studio and run with it. Although, that doesn't come across on the record. Webster seems to know exactly what she wants to say, even if it's in a stream of consciousness delivery. The album is incredibly warm. With moments of jazz, string backings, and an overarching country tone. This album sounds like the longest, saddest drive alone through the west. Nothing to do but just sit and think, probably overthink.
14. Tyler, The Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost
While Kanye and Drake continue to compete for relevance. Kendrick, still working on his next masterpiece. And women increasingly are taking over the genre, with simply better records across the board. Who will be hip-hop's next leading man? Tyler, The Creator. An incredible career arc that continues to evolve and chameleon. The sexually ambiguous artist has become a voice for many who are sick of the masculine ego measuring that the genre often leaned on. With hip-hop continuously challenging its audience, and growing so rapidly it's impossible to stay stagnant. If there is one artist who continues to change, it's Tyler. Now over a decade into his career, Tyler, The Creator's entrance into the public consciousness will be remembered like an alien crash landing. From the aggressive and angsty, Goblin, to the beautiful and personal Flower Boy and IGOR, Tyler has become the David Bowie of hip-hop. Ever-changing and truly authentic to himself. On-Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler is able to flex his skills as a lyricist, vocalist, producer, and visionary. There are few artists that will be as interesting to look back at from this generation as Tyler, The Creator.
15. Tonstartssbandht (tahn-starts-bandit) - Petunia
Psychedelic noise rock duo Edwin and Andy White released what may be the closest thing we'll get to an album that sounds like Radiohead at times. However, there are many other sounds throughout this deep and spacious record. There are places you can get lost in and truly immerse yourself within. At times there are clear references toward Pink Floyd with their reverberating bass lines that echo through. To the touches of Laurel Canyon 60's rock sprinkled throughout. For fans of psych-rock, or indie-jam this album is a must.
16. Mdou Moctar - Afrique Victime
Taureg guitarist Mdou Moctar began his music career using bicycle cables for guitar strings, as his family did not approve of electric guitar music. Now at 36, the Nigerian songwriter is seen by many as one of the most talented guitarists in the world. Along with his band, Moctar released Afrique Victim, a spectacular showcase of his prodigal guitar skills and crossover capability. Introducing many to Saraha rock with songs like, "Tala Tannam," a beautiful droning acoustic song that highlights the band's harmonies along with Moctar's guitar technique. But on "Afrique Victime," you can hear Western "guitar god" influences perfectly blended with the Taureg sound.
17. Snow Ellet - Suburban Indie Rockstar
If you're between the ages of 25 and 40, Snow Ellet's incredible EP Suburban Indie Rockstar will take you right back to the MTV era circa the early 2000s. With the skater, emo pop-punk appreciation lathered on throughout the entire EP, songwriter Eric Reyes is able to capture the self-awareness and humor that made bands like Blink-182 so fun to listen to. So come for the catchy pop hooks, and stay for the well-produced earnest nostalgia.
18. Sturgill Simpson - The Ballad of Dood and Juanita
The ever-changing country artist has worn many hats in his still-young career. However, the "Dood" seems to fit best. Sturgill Simpson has shared his deep love of Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger for the past few years. Arguably Nelson's most thought out work, that is completely immersive and stripped bare, highlighting his ability as a songwriter. If there was ever an album that could serve as a Western film, it would be that album. Simpson, now revitalized, is maybe going through a creative explosion. After reimagining his entire catalog into BlueGrass tunes, Simpson took a swing at making his very own Red Headed Stranger. The Ballad of Dood and Juanita is an ode to Appalachian storytelling through bluegrass and Simpson's modern take on 70's outlaw country. At times this record feels like you're watching an old Western TV show like Bonanza, mixed with a historical reenactment of Appalachian culture. For fans of Simpson, this has already been on repeat for you all year long.
19. Porter Robinson - Nurture
North Carolina EDM producer Porter Robinson took seven years to release his follow up to Worlds, and what he returned with was a euphoric dream-pop piece that you want to just sit in the grass and stare at the sky on a beautiful spring day. For those who aren't fans of EDM, this album has that same suburban escapism that something like "Free Fallin'" gives listeners. Peaceful escapism, that you can simply get lost in. Sure you can dance to this record, but you really should sit and appreciate the juxtaposition of dream pop and ambient music.
20. Remi Wolf - Juno
There's something ridiculous about Remi Wolf. Between the lyrics name-checking Red Hot Chili Peppers' lead singer Anthony Kiedis to her cartoon-like approach to soundscapes and delivery. However, two aspects are undeniable on Juno, every song on here is a blast and infectious in every way possible. Between the beats that have you bobbing and moving your head every second to the laid back light-heartedness of California, Juno is an enjoyable experience for all. When you actually think about it, Wolf isn't too far off from Anthony Kiedis, in that you're not totally sure what she's talking about at points and there is guaranteed reference to California, sex, and an interesting turn of phrase. But there is clearly exciting flashes throughout and in the future of Remi Wolf.
1. Turnstile - Glow On