Steven Hyden’s Favorite Albums Of 2021

Before I share my list, I need to repeat my regular “year-end list” disclaimer. If you already know the drill, feel free to skip ahead.

1) Ranking albums is dumb …

We all know this. Art isn’t a competition. I can’t really distinguish between my 13th favorite album and my 19th favorite. This is all talk. None of it really matters.

2) … but it’s kind of fun …
Of course it is! Because it’s about sharing music recommendations. And I do mean share — make your own lists and show them to me, especially if you’re the sort inclined to complain about lists. Put yourself out there and let me complain about you, too!

3) … because it’s really about discovering an album or two (or possibly more!) that you might not have known about otherwise.

Now, let’s rank!

20. Yasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood

Instrumental guitar records come and go out of my life like a spa visit — they are pleasant and relaxing in the moment but the therapeutic ease they provide tends to fade after about a week. Urban Driftwood is an exception. This album hung around from the time it dropped nearly a year ago in January. While Williams’ technique has been rightly praised as unique and innovative — she plays with the guitar flat on her lap — it’s the quality of her compositions that ultimately makes Urban Driftwood such a great listen. These are wonderful songs, not merely nice background music.

19. Jimmy Montague, Casual Use

One of the most surprising success stories of recent years has been the revival of Steely Dan among younger generations, many of whom weren’t even born yet when Fagen and Becker played mathematically perfect jazz-rock songs about doing blow with college girls. But while The Dan inspires memes and homages, they haven’t had much of a musical influence on young bands, probably because ripping off this band is hard. An exception is Casual Use, a sly and witty yacht-rock throwback that cannily infuses The Royal Scam with nods to more identifiable indie touchstones like early aughts Wilco and Jim O’Rourke.

18. Turnstile, Glow On

One of 2021’s most hyped rock records, which would be a problem if it didn’t also happen to be one of the year’s most fun rock records. Ostensibly a hardcore band, Turnstile has won over legions of converts because they match their rambunctious live shows with genuine songwriting chops and a penchant for explosive alt-rock hooks. So much of contemporary indie music — even the good stuff — is insular, slow, and soft. With Glow On, Turnstile has made a vividly physical record that demands to be played loud and in the company of friends — or, at the very least, strangers who won’t mind joining an instant mosh pit.

17. Ryley Walker, Course In Fable

What would happen if you combined Genesis’ ’70s prog-rock masterwork Selling England By The Pound with Tortoise’s peerless ’90s post-rock classic Millions Now Living Will Never Die? It would sound a lot like Course In Fable, the best album yet by the wise-cracking guitar ace Ryley Walker. Starting out as an irreverent folk-rocker, Walker has been slowly building toward music as gorgeous and grandiose as this, and he finally knocks it out of the park on these intricate multi-part songs in which tricky guitar solos and even trickier time signatures never take the focus off the winning melodies.

16. The Reds, Pinks, And Purples, Uncommon Weather

Without looking at the label, you could immediately tell that this small miracle of sad-guy jangle pop came out on Slumberland Records. It might very well be the most Slumberland album that ever Slumberlanded — the Washington D.C. independent has been putting out pocket-sized melodic and melancholy wonders like this for more than 30 years. If you love this kind of music, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s still possible to write captivating songs in this style in 2021. Uncommon Weather exists in a universe in which it never stops raining, you never have to leave your bedroom, and it’s always 1992.

15. Alien Boy, Don’t Know What I Am

This lovable Portland band alternately bops and mopes — or somehow mopes while bopping — on this infectious and melancholy set of wry power-pop songs. The lyrics address all of the bedrock subjects for the genre: loneliness, desire, self-loathing. how watching TV always makes perennial sad sacks cry. Imagine if the Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience sounded more like Guided By Voices and you’re in the ballpark.

14. Nation Of Language, A Way Forward

The reference points for this Brooklyn synth-rock outfit are not difficult to place — the vintage keyboard tones evoke Kraftwerk, the chilly atmosphere recalls Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, the pop choruses are pure Depeche Mode. But I think what I like most about their second record is how they seem like the sort of indie band that existed 20 years after the peak of those aforementioned acts, back when groups like this could still take over the world (or at least magazine covers). In a different timeline, Nation Of Language would’ve played with Interpol on the Antics tour.

13. The Killers, Pressure Machine

With 2020’s Imploding The Mirage, The Killers roared back to life with their best album since 2006’s Sam’s Town. If that album was a pleasant surprise, Pressure Machine registers as a genuine shock. While it doesn’t boast the hooks of their biggest hits, it is easily their best and most impactful conceptual work, a song cycle that depicts the life of a small Utah town with a sensitivity and insight that their previous work barely hinted at. Musically, Pressure Machine melds the heartland rock and Britpop sides of The Killers’ split personality, with the final result sounding like Robert Smith’s version of Nebraska.

12. Trace Mountains, House Of Confusion

This winsome project from former LVL UP member Dave Benton feels like a throwback to the rustic “out in the country” acts of the classic-rock era. (In fact their 2020 debut LP was literally called Lost In The Country.) This year’s Trace Mountains album goes deeper than the first record, with lovely pedal-steel lines accenting already beautiful ballads designed to be played at dusk. If you’ve been jonesing for a new Phosphorescent record — or you wish Destroyer made a sweet-natured pastoral folk LP — this will scratch that itch.

11. Lucy Dacus, Home Video

One of the best writers in the game right now when it comes to storytelling lyrics. As the title of her third album suggests, Dacus makes you see her songs as much as hear them. They unfold like character studies, in which smart but damaged people reveal themselves via dialogue that tip-toe around personal traumas until these individuals are finally subsumed. She’s also just plain funny, like the opening line of “VBS,” where Dacus drawls sardonically, “In the summer of ’07 / I was sure I’d go to heaven, but I was hedging my bets at VBS.” But what cinches Home Video as Dacus’ best effort yet is the upgrade in musical punch. For the first time, her melodies hit as hard as the words.

10. Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee

It seems early for nostalgia for that moment in mid-aughts indie when underground bands started making unabashedly grand albums like Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Joanna Newsom’ Ys. Then again, musicians like Michelle Zauner were raised on that music as teenagers, and with the third Japanese Breakfast LP, she’s made her own version of a rich and expansive “level up” record. On Jubilee, bright pop arrangements enhance the emotional authenticity of Zauner’s lyrics, making for a compulsively listenable album even as it cuts deep.

9. Lightning Bug, A Color Of The Sky

If this were an “albums I played the most at dusk in 2021” list, A Color Of The Sky would be No. 1 with a bullet. This Brooklyn band made some of the most beautiful music I heard this year, a gently twangy wisp in which Audrey Kang murmurs eloquently over soundscapes that split the difference between shoegaze and ambient Americana. I suppose I could just say “sounds like Mazzy Star” for the sake of brevity, but A Color Of The Sky really exists in its own private, shadowy, and deeply seductive world.

8. Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Superwolves

The year’s best sequel. Sixteen years after their original collaboration Superwolf — a cult favorite for years passed among friends and musicians as a well-chosen recommendation — these best pals snap right back into a fruitful dynamic. Sweeney is the sunny musical architect armed with one long-lost Crazy Horse riff after another, and Will Oldham (once again adopting the “Prince” moniker) is the perverse lyrical genius spinning love songs from the perspective of stalkers, whore house madams, and other assorted creeps. At once a heartwarming testimony to friendship and a deeply disturbing song cycle, Superwolves demands that these guys not wait another 16 years to work together again.

7. Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg

This record took a while for me to get. Perhaps it’s my cynicism about yet another wave of talky post-punk bands from England being treated as rock saviors. But when New Long Leg was greeted with rapturous reviews last spring, I found myself resisting the album’s deadpan charm. But over time, Dry Cleaning won me over. Florence Shaw is the most unique and off-putting rock singer in years, always quick with a quip that doesn’t sound like a quip until it’s been rolling around in your head for a week and suddenly slays you. When she says that she thinks of herself “as a hardy banana with that waxy surface and the small delicate flowers / A woman in aviators firing a bazooka,” you are at first confounded, then intrigued, and finally persuaded that, yes, she’s exactly right.

6. Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime

The year’s most exhilarating album. I mean that literally — you put it on and feel an immediate surge in your bloodstream, especially if you love long guitar jams that implore you to get up and dance. Though there is also profound sorrow on this record, as Moctar sings about the history of exploitation that has poisoned his home country for centuries. But when he plugs in and tears into another Hendrix-style riff, what comes through most vividly isn’t hurt or pain but resilience. The music on Afrique Victime is as indomitable as the man who made it.

5. Wild Pink, A Billion Little Lights

This Florida band makes inner monologues sound absolutely huge. While singer-songwriter John Ross’ soft voice superficially suggests shy introspection, he has big thoughts on his mind throughout A Billion Little Lights — about urban sprawl, manifest destiny, the death of the American west, and the dehumanizing effects of modern technology. But it’s the sparkly synth-rock sweep of the music that really makes an impression, especially when Ross deploys mile-wide pedal steel flourishes to underscore his aching melancholy.

4. Rosali, No Medium

Out of all the albums on this list, No Medium is the one I recommended the most to friends and acquaintances. Because this Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter remains unjustly unsung, and also because I’m convinced that anyone would like it if they could only hear it. Blessed with a stunning voice that’s reminiscent of Chrissie Hynde — she’s covered The Pretenders’ “Birds Of Paradise” with her pals in The War On Drugs — Rosali turns in a set of slow burners that benefit greatly from the Crazy Horse-like backing of the David Nance Group. The result is an album that will make you cry while also rocking your soul.

3. Tonstartssbandht, Petunia

The #indiejam album of the year. This Florida duo has been kicking around for more than decade, and they have a sizable body of work that includes 16 albums released since 2008. But Petunia feels like a culmination of their years spent experimenting with a mix of psychedelia, krautrock, folk rock, and electronic music. While the vibes are easy-going, a real undertow of menace pervades the album’s highlight “What Has Happened,” which sounds like Pink Floyd’s Meddle after a bad dose and an intense religious conversion.

2. Low, Hey What

How many bands have had a career arc like this Minnesota institution? A respected indie mainstay since the early ’90s, Low had already amassed a strong catalog by the time they started collaborating with Bon Iver associate B.J. Burton in the mid-2010s. But with 2018’s Double Negative and now Hey What, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have somehow moved into the most sonically adventurous and artistically advantageous stage of their lives. While Double Negative was possibly a more shocking record, completely deconstructing Low’s slowcore ballads into discombobulated static, Hey What is ultimately more inviting, extending the previous album’s innovations while renewing the focus on Sparhawk and Parker’s elemental harmonies.

1. The War On Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore

An interesting quandary I often face at year-end list-making time boils down to this dynamic: The Album I Love Because I Can Play it Constantly And Never Tire Of It vs. The Album I Love Because It’s So Overwhelming Emotionally I Can Only Play It When I’m In A Certain Mood. This year, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is the former album for me, and Hey What is the latter. It’s impossible to discern which is “better” because these kinds of albums are playing two completely different and equally valid games! But I’m going with I Don’t Live Here Anymore in the top slot because it’s easily the LP I played the most this year, and I suspect I’ll still be playing it a ton in 10 years.

Over the course of The War On Drugs’ 13-year recording career, Adam Granduciel has refined and streamlined his band’s heartland indie sound. Listen to 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues and it’s almost like a completely different band; what was once a noisy, lo-fi, and meandering mess of guitars and synths has now emerged on The War On Drugs’ fifth album as a world-beating collection of punchy pop-rock anthems. It remains to be seen whether this will be their most successful LP, but it is undeniably their catchiest and most engaging. It’s also loaded with the sort of grandly uplifting rock gestures that Granduciel is so good at making. I don’t think there is a better moment on any album I’ve heard this year than when the drums come in on “Old Skin.” In fact, I’m going to play it for the 219th time right now.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.