20. Munya – Voyage to Mars
I have a taste for colorful French pop that I won’t apologize for, and Munya is one of the genre’s best current practitioners. Her tropical sounds are pleasant and inviting, and she writes catchy songs that also feel like they have some real feeling and a bit of melancholy in them. Voyage to Mars is all about the pop songcraft, and I find albums like these refreshing when compared to the in-your-face style of more popular pop artists.
19. Poppy Ackroyd – Pause
Ackroyd makes pretty piano music and I’m not entirely sure what else to say about it beyond that. She hits those keys well, certainly, and there’s also a clear mood and tone on Pause that feels looser and more in touch with nature than the typical neo-classical fare. “Seedling,” maybe just because of its title, makes the notes sound like rain drops and it’s easy to picture something growing slowly to its meditative sound.
18. Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
Jenkins’ second full-length has one of the strongest one-two punches of the year: for those who like NPR-core indie folk, “Michelangelo” is like a perfect version of it, and the more experimental “Hard Drive” might be the song of the year with its clever lyrics and constantly building production. The rest of An Overview on Phenomenal Nature doesn’t reach those high points, but there’s a general reflective tone that I like (particularly the closing instrumental, “The Ramble”) and more of a focus on creating mood through sound than is typical of this kind of folk.
17. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
Dry Cleaning’s first full length isn’t quite as compelling as their first release (the stellar Sweet Princess EP), and I think there is a “less is more” thing happening with singer Florence Shaw’s talky style, which is inherently repetitive in its drollness. I still like New Long Leg because it’s rock music with some actual personality; Shaw adds some much-needed charisma to the scene and her abstract lyrics bring obvious comparisons to Mark E. Smith in terms of creating intrigue. The band behind her also pulls their weight with post-punk rhythms that keep the sound engaging while Shaw rambles away.
16. Allison Lorenzen – Tender
Lorenzen, along with Midwife/Madeline Johnston (who collaborates with her on this album), has what feels like a new take on heavy music. Most of Tender is ethereal, dreamy folk with piano, but it’s punctuated with distorted guitars that are like Midwife’s “heaven metal” concept. The result is songs that are full of the kind of tensions I always find fascinating: songs like “Chalk” and “Vale” are simultaneously light and dark as well as ugly and beautiful. This is one of those albums that feels like it’s in its own hypnotizing world compared to everything else.
15. Julia Shapiro – Zorked
The Chastity Belt singer’s second solo album benefits from more sonic exploration than she shows in that group. Zorked dips into some heavier rock influences, like the doomgaze on opener “Death (XIII),” while also having some quieter affecting moments like “Reptile! Reptile!,” which features a trumpet part from her roommate and co-producer Jay Som that joins her mumbled downtrodden vocal. Shapiro maintains the knack for understated melodies that she’s shown through her career (“Someone” is one of the year’s catchiest indie rock songs), and also works through a lot of pandemic-related feelings that are relatable.
14. Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8
I won’t act like I know anything about jazz, but Space 1.8 strikes me as a very impressive take on it, or at least one that appeals to me more which is the most important thing a musician can do. I’ve never been into faster jazz that seems like it is more about the artist showing off, so the slower, more refined take from Sinephro is more my speed. It sounds like the notes are considered and meaningful, and there is an actual heart and voice within these instrumentals that resonates, even if they’re being listened to in the background.
13. Desert Liminal – Glass Fate
Desert Liminal remains a difficult band to classify, which is part of their appeal in this segmented music world where I can click “shoegaze” on Bandcamp and find a ton of identical-sounding bands. Sarah Jane Quillin’s vocals/keys and Rob Logan’s drums now are joined by violin from Mallory Linehan, which adds another dimension to their sound without detracting from the ambiguous minimalism that made their first release, Static Thick, so intriguing to me. The strength of Quillin’s songs is that they don’t desire to be understood — meaning can be gleaned from some lyrics, and the way she sings, but a lot is left to the listener in a way that is evocative and makes their songs memorable.
12. Mega Bog – Life, and Another
Life, and Another loses some points for its comically overwrought and pretentious album description on Bandcamp, but it’s a fun psychedelic pop journey with a ton of variety and a quirky personality at its center. Mega Bog (Erin Birgy) reminds me of Laurie Anderson with her speak-singing style, which she uses in a few different settings. “Crumb Back” is an upbeat funky tune with some squawking saxophone and “Maybe You Died” sounds a bit like The War on Drugs if they had an interesting vocalist. The biggest highlight for me is the low-key and bewitching “Station to Station,” which has some celestial synth work and the psychedelic feeling the album is going for. All of these different sounds are put together in a way that flows together into an album that tells a story that is left to the listener’s interpretation.
11. The Weather Station – Ignorance
Tamara Lindeman’s band makes folk rock that feels different from everyone else. Her lyrics on Ignorance are thought-provoking, often pertaining to fears over the climate, and the songs are full of creative musical touches, particularly the complex rhythms and bits of saxophone. Parts of Ignorance remind me of more “normal” albums like Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing, but updated for 2021 and indiefied with a wider range of sounds and more complex lyrics.
10. Shiny Times – Let’s Get Shiny!
Part of the appeal of Let’s Get Shiny! is how it sounds like it was made without any expectations. It only clocks in at 16 minutes, and its sound is a throwback to simpler indie pop times, when the whole point was to make something genuine with the few production tools at the artist’s disposal rather than just a slightly more challenging or quirky version of radio pop. Kim Hart Weldin (who also plays in Tape Waves) perfectly captures not just indie pop’s sound, but its spirit, and the songs on Let’s Get Shiny! are fuzzy little gems with reverbed jangly guitar riffs and her plainly sung vocals. It’s all very simple, but when the execution is this sound, it doesn’t need to be anything else.
9. King Woman – Celestial Blues
When it comes to scratching my heavy rock/metal itch, Kristina Esfandiari’s band has stepped up to replace the Subrosa-sized hole in my heart. Celestial Blues has some similarity to that band, in that it is dynamically rich, balancing its thunderous intense moments with ethereal quiet. This makes it so the heavy moments feel like they mean something and aren’t just about approximating a popular aesthetic or being shocking. Lyrically, Esfandiari explores the dark themes one might expect — “Morning Star” is about Lucifer — but also mostly avoids clichés and gets into personal material about trauma that feels intense and real where I find many metal bands get over-the-top and cheesy. Esfandiari shows a flair for the dramatic in her voice, and also enough sense of restraint to keep her sound from being repetitive. I’m a little self-conscious about how quiet and folky this list is — it feels like it’s harder and harder to find rock albums that bring it like Celestial Blues does.
8. Colleen Green – Cool
I can admit that one reason I love Colleen Green is that her music is a useful proxy for various arguments I make about art. She gets very little credit from critic types because her music is unambitious and her lyrics are conversational instead of being attempts at prose. What she has is a relatable, funny personality, and a willingness to sing about her misadventures in adulthood in a way that feels more real because she’s not hiding behind a bunch of big words or overly fancy sounds. While she is more comfortable in her own skin on Cool, and confident enough to add some new styles to her repertoire, she still shines most on catchy pop songs like “It’s Nice to Be Nice” and “I Wanna Be a Dog” that let her humor and self-deprecating charm shine through. Green sort of plays the idiot, but there is real intelligence and emotional depth in her songs.
7. Lia Ices – Family Album
Ices’ first album in seven years embraces a new sound inspired by her move to California, with rich piano, guitar, and string arrangements accompanied by her soulful vocals. What takes these slow, emotional songs to the next level is the very slight psychedelic touch in the production, which was assisted by JR White of Girls, who tragically passed away last year before its release. Ices explores the domestic themes suggested by the title in a way that brims with hope, even while the world around us seems to be on the verge of crumbling, which makes this feel like an oasis. I don’t consider this kind of soft pop to be in my wheelhouse, but Family Album‘s wholesome, pure energy and the quality of the songwriting make it one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.
6. Fritz – Pastel
Fritz is a 22-year-old from Australia, and the best part of her music is that it sounds like it was made by a somewhat normal 22-year-old — one who has done her indie pop homework. Pastel fits right into the tradition of c86 bands and early twee groups like Tiger Trap, with fuzzy guitars and soaring melodies capturing those big youthful feelings of excitement, anxiety, or sadness. Instead of making an album for critics that takes itself too seriously and acts profound, Fritz embraces her inexperience with songs about being a kid and not having everything figured out. The emphasis on normalness and relatability maybe masks that she is a prodigious writer of rock hooks, which is the other part of Pastel that makes it the year’s most enjoyable zoomer album.
5. Marissa Nadler – The Path of the Clouds
Nadler has been a prolific artist for over a decade now, and while she’s always been on my radar, I never really got into one of her albums until this year’s The Path of the Clouds. It’s possibly just a result of my tastes shifting, but I also think this album has her most engaging songwriting. Inspired by true crime stories, Nadler spins tales of murders, disappearances and other unsolved mysteries, and the morbid subject matter is the perfect fit for her ghostly, gothic dream-folk style. And while a lot of current media, particularly podcasts, arguably fetishize or glorify these kinds of stories, Nadler treats them with a more delicate touch while finding herself in the characters. A lot of these songs, particularly “Bessie, Did You Make It?” seem like stories being told around a campfire, the kind that get remembered and passed down for years.
4. Dummy – Mandatory Enjoyment
Dummy are hardly the first Stereolab-worshipping band in the last few years to combine loud guitars, krautrock rhythms, and dreamy vocals, but they may be the best. Their debut full length fulfills the promise of last year’s EPs, with some of the year’s most addictive songwriting bolstered by enthusiastic musical exploration. While some bands in this zone have one sound they iterate on repeatedly, every song on Mandatory Enjoyment is a little different: there’s the straight noise pop of “Fissured Ceramics” or “Daffodils,” the gentle Broadcast-like psychedelia of “Tapestry Distortion,” and the new age ambient style on “Atonal Poem.” And it’s all sequenced and paced in a thoughtful way where it’s clearly the work of a band with a single point of view. This is an album by people who love music (right after the thanks section of their Bandcamp page, they recommend a ton of bands) and have channeled their favorite sounds into something that feels new.
3. Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell
Emma Ruth Rundle rarely sings above a whisper on Engine of Hell, yet the album feels like her loudest, most definitive statement. The acoustic recording is a departure from her last couple albums that had heavy electric guitar, with the focus entirely on her voice and her solitary piano/guitar playing. Even in about the most spare, austere setting imaginable, Rundle’s artistry and passion shines through and makes for a gripping, memorable listen that separates her from so many artists who are serious but not musically interesting. As raw and uncomfortable as Engine of Hell can be, there is also inspiration to be found in an artist who is willing to reveal the uglier side of life in such an honest way.
2. Cold Beat – War Garden
There’s been a major shift towards 80s synths in indie music lately, and so it’s easy to write off albums with those sounds as some kind of bandwagon trendy thing that is all style and no substance. Cold Beat is operating on an entirely different level from almost all the other artists in this space, though: Hannah Lew’s band uses synths for a purpose and have honed in on a retro-futuristic sound that is wistful, inviting, yet strange. Lew’s singing and songwriting feels like it is constantly progressing, and on War Garden the band makes their most accessible album yet, with songs like “See You Again” and “Year Without a Shadow” that reflect on COVID in a way that recognizes the darkness of it while still maintaining a belief in better days ahead. I’m obsessed with bands that can find the humanity in strange electronic sounds, and no one is doing that better than Cold Beat.
1. Spellling – The Turning Wheel
Fueled by 20k in Kickstarter money and a large cast of supporting musicians, Chrystia Cabral’s third album reaches its grand ambitions and offers one of the most satisfying experiences in music: hearing a completely singular vision come to life. The addition of orchestral and horn arrangements to her previous synth stylings elevates her sound into the stratosphere, resulting in cosmic fantasies that are bizarre and alien while still being somewhat grounded in pop songcraft. It’s one thing to make a quirky, complex album; it’s another to make it in such a way that all of those indulgences actually matter because they serve a narrative. The excesses of the sound are part of the emotional center of The Turning Wheel, which tells a story of someone who has always felt like an outsider but now has embraced her weirdness to make music that sounds like nobody else. This album belongs in the same discussion as artists like Kate Bush and Björk in terms of combining forward-thinking pop with genuine personality and emotion.