If nothing else, music serves as a prime reminder of the strength of community and uplifting shared experience. From a purely musical perspective (don’t get me started on the other stuff), the theme of 2021 was hope as the live music industry trudged toward a beacon of light at the end of a long tunnel. Concerts slowly started to return during the summer, and by the fall, every venue still in business after all this was back up and running. Before we knew it, Foo Fighters were welcoming fans back to Madison Square Garden for the first arena show in a Covid world and the coat check at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer was adorned with Michelle Zauner’s name after Japanese Breakfast performed a historic run of sold-out shows at the venue.
In the midst of all of this, artists never stopped churning out new music to keep building momentum and lay the groundwork for continued growth. From Another Michael’s astonishing indie-folk debut and Foxing’s heightened art rock to Turnstile’s thrashing hardcore breakout and Hovvdy’s blissed-out vibes, the indie world provided some of 2021’s most exciting new music. Check out our unranked, alphabetized list of the year’s 25 best indie albums below, and check out or general songs and albums lists, too
Another Michael — New Music And Big Pop
“New Music,” the opening track of New Music And Big Pop, took a mere 31 seconds to capture my full attention when a streaming link popped into my inbox about a year ago,” I wrote in a recent feature about the New York trio. Admittedly, it’s difficult to judge a full project based on 31 seconds of the opening track, but it does manage to set the stage well for what is ultimately ten songs that are imbued with a sense of liberation and raw talent that feels rare in modern indie rock, rife with catchy hooks and impressive vocal arrangements that act like a comforting hug. – Zac Gelfand
Arlo Parks — Collapsed In Sunbeams
Arlo Parks was like a therapist during the pandemic. Originally beginning as poems, her songs are gorgeous ruminations on the depressive states that are all too common with young people today, and became magnified as we lived our lives in a locked-down state for months. The way her warm-voiced presentation of lyrics like “It’s so cruel, what your mind can do for no reason” (on “Eugene”) struck a chord with the loneliness millions were feeling in 2021 and were a salve in dire times. Collapsed In Sunbeams won the Mercury Music Prize as the top album in the UK, and also garnered a Grammy Award nomination for Best Alternative Album. It illustrated the power of Parks’ universal songwriting and she’s maintained an unshakeable grace and charisma along the way. – Adrian Spinelli
The Armed — Ultrapop
The Armed is a real trip. For the unfamiliar, the experimental hardcore group has an ever-changing lineup that isn’t usually revealed. They did give a list of artists who performed on the new album Ultrapop (their first released through Sargent House), but given the group’s history of misdirection, who knows whether or not that should be taken at face value. Things only get more confusing when you listen to the new album, but in a good way, as it features the group pumping out everything from post-hardcore to power-pop, doing it all in ways that make the band’s many mysteries all the more engaging. – Derrick Rossignol
Big Red Machine — How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?
What’s interesting about the second Big Red Machine album is how unexperimental it sounds. Whereas the first Big Red Machine record consisted of esoteric sketches that felt like excerpts from long, heady jam sessions, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? includes some of the most approachable and pop-oriented material that Aaron Dessner or Justin Vernon have ever produced. This can partly be attributed, of course, to the involvement of Taylor Swift, who along with suggesting the album title appears on the album’s most immediate track, “Renegades.” But the rest of the record is similarly melodic and warm, evincing little of the electro-indie dissonance of the recent output by The National and Bon Iver. – Steven Hyden
Dijon — Absolutely
The incredibly evocative singer helped redefine traditional notions of R&B on Absolutely. The album is as stunning for the way Dijon delivers his vocals as it is for the music that backs him. Guitars and strings are an ever-present character motif, like the city of New York in a Spike Lee joint, and the surrounding cast of musicians (led by guitarist Mk. Gee) provide a glorious canvas for Dijon’s vocal tour de force. “Many Times” is a riveting number that’s controllably frenetic in the best way possible. Same goes for “Bike Mike’s,” with its slide guitar popping in from one angle, bass from another, and Dijon floating in congruence with drums and guitar as he pines for a mythical woman. – A.S.
Dry Cleaning — New Long Leg
There was no shortage this year of British post-punk bands that deployed talky vocals, clanging guitars, and loose-limbed rhythm sections in the service of conveying, quote unquote, the banality of modern’s life horrifying existence. Many of these bands are derivative and even tiresome. Dry Cleaning is the exception. While they certainly fit that standard nü-post-punk mold on New Long Leg, they’re able to ultimately transcend the limitations of the genre thanks to lead singer Florence Shaw, whose deadpan delivery and darkly funny non-sequiturs leave a strikingly unique impression. – S.H.
Faye Webster — I Know I’m Funny haha
For Atlanta die-hard Faye Webster, I Know I’m Funny haha represents the fully-formed vision of her folk and country for the well-rounded mind. “Got you a bass last year on your birthday / The same one the guy from Linkin Park plays / But you look better with it anyways,” she sings over a sultry pedal steel on the title track. Then, she pours it on for Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr with “I saw you last night in my dream / That’s still the closest you and I have been,” as a saxophone bellows alongside her on “A Dream About A Baseball Player.” Webster’s ability to enact the impeccable Americana vintage sound from the nuanced perspective of a 20-something is what will keep her firmly entrenched as a torchbearer of the Southern music tradition. – A.S.
Foxing — Draw Down The Moon
After leaving it all on the table with 2018’s art-rock masterpiece Nearer My God, Foxing raised the stakes once again earlier this year with Draw Down The Moon, a record that Ian Cohen called “Foxing’s answer to Future Islands’ Singles or Bleed American or Manchester Orchestra’s A Black Mile To The Surface, recent examples of perpetual underdogs betting on the most direct version of themselves.” The verdict is still out on whether this record will help Foxing will be able to overcome the hurdles that have plagued them to date, but at least we got to reap the benefit of everything they had to give. – Z.G.
Geese — Projector
Though five-piece Brooklyn band Geese are fresh out of high school, you would never be able to pick up on their young age by listening to the band’s debut album, Projector. Geese was born out of a truly DIY-ethos, gathering every Friday in their parents’ basement to record music with amps covered by blankets. But despite their humble beginnings, Geese manage to make music that’s both haunting and energizing, inspired by the experimental styles of artists like LCD Soundsystem and other early aughts post-punk. While the lyrics on most of the album’s songs are far from the focal point, each track is teeming with understandable anxiety and angst about relationships, climate change, and the future while being both effortlessly catchy and layered with emotion. – Carolyn Droke
Hovvdy — True Love
Hovvdy are one of the rare bands that are able to take the leap from true lo-fi songwriting into a world far greater than they could have ever imagined, all without leaving any of their inspiration behind. Their new album True Love is the first with new label home Grand Jury, and the duo took full advantage of the new resources to help bolster their sound in the studio setting. True Love is what I called in a recent feature “one of the rare ‘return to roots’ albums that build upon the band’s lore and set them up for further success.” – Z.G.
Illuminatti Hotties — Let Me Do One More
2018’s Kiss Yr Frenemies was a big indie hit, making it a tough act to follow for Sarah Tudzin and her Illuminati Hotties cohorts. They tried their best with this year’s Let Me Do One More, and it turns out their best was indeed good enough and then some. Tudzin said she wanted to get more into writing pop hooks on the new album, and indeed, there are catchy moments throughout that exist in a variety of well-executed aesthetics, like on the beachy “Uvvp” (which features Big Thief’s Buck Meek) and the more slowcore-influenced “Threatening Each Other Re: Capitalism.” – D.R.
Indigo De Souza — Any Shape You Take
With her sophomore album, Any Shape You Take, Indigo DeSouza tackled her songwriting with a kind of vibrancy and open-mindedness that was hard to find in her tiny North Carolina hometown. The songs on her album resist fitting any specific genre category, moving fluidly between sparkling pop anthems and somber suburban emo power ballads. Though it can’t be defined by labels, DeSouza’s music tackles love in all forms while flexing her range of intimate songwriting abilities. The shimmering song “Hold U” is a pumped-up track that describes the importance of platonic love, while other songs like “Pretty Pictures” and “Kill Me” detail the aftermath of a life-altering breakup. – C.D
Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee
Michelle Zauner had a momentous 2021. In April, her first book, a memoir about her complicated relationship with her late mother called Crying In H Mart, debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. Then she made the best Japanese Breakfast record of her career. While Japanese Breakfast’s early material was often classified as lo-fi, Jubilee represents her grandest music yet, nodding to the sonically rich and expansive indie albums of the ’90s and ’00s by artists such as Bjork and Joanna Newsom. In terms of lyrics, Zauner has turned her eye to character studies that are delivered with cinematic flair. – S.H.
Julien Baker — Little Oblivions
With each album, Julien Baker widens her scope a little bit. Where Sprained Ankle was a very sparse affair focused mostly on lyrics, Turn Out The Lights introduced a few more instruments and depth into the mix, and now Little Oblivions is what Steven Hyden calls “the most musically inviting album that Baker has made yet, with extra heft added to the guitars and rhythm section nudging her closer to a full-on rock record. But the emotional brutality of the lyrics somehow melds with the uplifting beauty of the music, perhaps giving Baker some peace in the process.” – Zac Gelfand
The Killers — Pressure Machine
In interviews about the latest Killers LP, Brandon Flowers likened Pressure Machine to Achtung Baby. Incredibly, he’s sort of correct. For one thing, both albums were the seventh releases for the respective arena-rock institutions. But the similarities go deeper than just discography placement. Just as Achtung Baby was a reboot for U2, Pressure Machine is a bold reinvention for The Killers, setting Flowers’ most evocative narrative lyrics ever to dusty, downscaled versions of his band’s hybrid of anglophilia and heartland rock. It’s one of 2021’s most surprising comebacks. – S.H.
Lucy Dacus — Home Videos
Though she’s been operating in the the indie sphere for half a decade at this point, Lucy Dacus‘ third album Home Video marks her strongest effort yet. Now in her mid-twenties, Dacus is far enough away from her youth to reflect on her childhood. With a sense of humor, nostalgia, and a bit of incredulity, Dacus examines her bible study days on Home Video. With catchy refrains, inviting vocals, and heart-tugging lyrics, Dacus walks listeners through the highs and lows of first-times, youthful relationships, and self-discovery. Armed with her current wisdom, Dacus’ music gives honest advice in the form of poetic ballads, urging both her former self and her friends to see their self-worth in the face of potentially harmful relationships through songs like “VMB” and “Christine.” – C.D
Mdou Moctor — Afrique Victime
Afrique Victime is loaded with moments where the great Nigerien guitarist Mdou Moctar steps out of the song in order to ram his guitar directly into your guts. He does this for emotional effect, bending and blurring notes with the furious energy that defines one of his most obvious influences, Jimi Hendrix. But you suspect that Moctar also believes that ripping off a sick solo is extremely dope, which on this record it absolutely is. It might even make you ask: Why don’t we hear guitar solos more often these days? As it is, the concept of the guitar hero remains alive and well thanks to this six-string genius. – S.H.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis — Carnage
Decades into his career and as prolific as ever, Carnage stands among the best work of Nick Cave’s career. In song after song, surprising moments sweep the listener off their feet, from the nightmarish repetition of the titular phrase on opener “Hand Of God” to the best Spiritualized refrain that they didn’t write on “White Elephant.” Collaborator Warren Ellis makes his mark on each, turning an album that’s often spare into a headphones-needed exercise in nuance. There might not be more beautiful moments on tape this year as the title track or the plaintive “Albuquerque.” – Philip Cosores
Petey — Lean Into Life
It’s likely you’ve seen Petey on TikTok (where he’s known as @peteyusa), as his off-kilter and hilarious videos routinely rack up millions of views. Learning that he also makes music might seem like you’re finding out about a frivolous spin-off endeavor that influencers do to expand their brands, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. His TikTok fame actually came after his record deal and the music really is something to behold. His comedic traits can be seen in the music, but his songs, which are diverse and constitute some of the year’s most gripping indie-rock, are no joke. – D.R.
Sega Bodega — Romeo
Sega Bodega may not yet be on your playlists, but that’s just due to lack of exposure. The Irish artist only just released his first album last year but already has major co-signs under his belt: Rihanna has used his music in Fenty ads and Arca makes an appearance on this year’s Romeo, featuring on “Cicada.” That song is one of many from the new album that shows off Sega Bodega’s versatility: While “Cicada” comes across like warped ethereal Reggaeton, the album features everything from dreamy electronica (“Only Seeing God When I Come”) to straightforward pop ballads (“I Need Nothing From You”). – D.R.
Snail Mail — Valentine
Snail Mail went through a lot of major life changes between her breakout debut LP Lush and sophomore follow-up Valentine, which included a seemingly non-stop tour and mental health struggles. As a result, Snail Mail’s Valentine tackles the aftermath of her fame and the cult of personality surrounding her musical persona with a delicate maturity. The earnest, rollicking tracks throughout her album detail self-destruction, masochistic love, and fame with an energy that teeters between loungy ballads and songs that absolutely shred. – C.D.
Turnstile — Glow On
Just an insanely fun record that has unwittingly inspired a revival of one of the biggest bummer music conversations: What makes a hardcore band a hardcore band? Specifically, can a band that kind of sounds like 311 and ’80s Rush (seriously!) really be considered hardcore? Fortunately, Turnstile themselves don’t seem to care all that much about semantics. Yes, they play shows with the manic energy of a hardcore gig. But their songs have so many hooks that Glow On ends up being one of 2021’s most inviting and inclusive records. – S.H.
The War On Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore
After four long years, The War On Drugs finally returned in November with a reward for our patience. Musically, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is a refinement of the craft the band explored on 2017’s A Deeper Understanding, which itself was a refinement of 2014’s Lost In The Dream. It’s evidence of a band that is always adapting and evolving for an LP that is without a doubt their most accessible material to date. It packs in catchy hooks, driving rhythms, and emotionally cathartic instrumental arrangements anchored guitar solos that will remind you why guitar solos are, in fact, awesome. – Z.G.
Wild Pink — A Billion Little Lights
The latest Wild Pink release, A Billion Little Lights, feels like a culminating moment for songwriter John Ross. What originally began as a vision for a massive double-album exploring the history of the American West was eventually trimmed down to a more conventional release, with Ross refocusing his efforts instead on creating the most beautiful and enveloping soundscapes that he could. A Billion Little Lights is what Steven Hyden called the project’s “most ambitious and overall best work, infused with deep lyrical craft and impeccable melodies that set Wild Pink apart from the indie-dude pack.” – Z.G.
Willow — Lately I Feel Everything
As someone who has essentially existed in pop culture her entire life thanks to the celebrity status of her parents, Willow hit the mark with her distinctive pivot to pop-punk on the album Lately I Feel Everything. Willow didn’t purposely follow along with returning trends while writing the songs on her latest LP, she was instead inspired by the apathetic music that was popular during her youth — a juxtaposition to the album’s title. Produced by Blink-182 drummer and impending Kardashian family member Travis Barker, Willow expertly pours an excess of emotion into her music through electrifying guitars, raucous production, and wailing vocals that make listeners forget she ever even had a stint as an R&B artist. – C.D.
Some artists here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.