My Favorite Albums of 2021

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.

Emma Ruth Rundle’s “Engine of Hell” is Quietly Devastating

Emma Ruth Rundle’s music has been getting heavier and heavier the last few years, moving from the gloomy folk on Some Heavy Ocean to the noisy, dynamic guitar rock of Marked for Death and On Dark Horses, and reaching a crescendo last year on May Our Chambers Be Full, a collaborative album with the metal band Thou. Her latest, Engine of Hell, would seem to be a massive departure: Rundle recorded it herself acoustically with minimal accompaniment and no production flourishes, with a focus on being as raw and stripped down as possible. I was initially worried about this because I was so in love with the sound of her last two albums, but I ended up surprised at how not-different this feels. The traits that make Rundle’s music special are still here in spades: passion, emotion, and off-the-charts intensity.

I’ve frequently expressed skepticism about this kind of miserable, lo-fi folk music, but Rundle is too good to have any of the pitfalls that make me sometimes struggle with it. Nothing on Engine of Hell is affected or put-on; it doesn’t have that feeling that the artist is waiting for you to congratulate them on their bravery for putting themselves out there like this. Most importantly, even in this much quieter aesthetic, Rundle maintains a clear sense of musicality and craft. These songs crackle with life, making them compelling to listen to compared to a lot of artists who adopt the idea of “sad music” and sound tedious because they don’t back it up with musicianship. This is more comparable to something like PJ Harvey’s White Chalk, an album that is using quiet, space, and a different vocal style to show the artist’s familiar gifts in a different way than you’ve heard before.

Rundle’s music has never been a barrel of monkeys, but on previous releases, listeners could let themselves get lost in the fog of her guitar soundscapes and her rock hooks. Engine of Hell offers no such solace; it feels like the album is staring at you and you can’t hide from it. On one hand, this is uncomfortable, especially given the themes and lyricism at play, but it’s also a source of rare catharsis to hear an artist be this real and unconcerned with sounding flawed (the album was recorded with minimal takes). The result is that Engine of Hell doesn’t really make me depressed because I find myself inspired by Rundle and her abilities.

While her electric guitar has often been the main focus of praise, Engine of Hell solidifies Rundle as one of music’s best singers. The sparse instrumentation puts the focus on her vocals, and she shows a wider range and more expressiveness than she ever has before. On the opening piano ballad “Return,” she sings in a higher register to sound angelic and fragile; elsewhere, like on “Razor’s Edge,” she takes on a more whispery, conversational tone, like she’s confiding in the listener. More important than any notes she hits is her innate ability to make you believe in and feel whatever she is singing. Rundle’s lyrics do not provide typical obvious interpretations, but from her performance, it’s easy to pick up on the moods and ideas she is working with. It sounds like she’s legitimately been through some shit and is singing from the heart instead of putting on a performance or receding into a stage version of herself.

Rundle has alluded to some of that in interviews about the album, mentioning feeling lost in life and struggling with drugs/alcohol on top of the COVID anxieties most of us have been dealing with. “The Company” most directly can be construed as about addiction, with its closing lyrics (“my whole life/some dark night/is so much brighter now/without you”) possibly representing her ongoing sobriety, though everything is written in such a way that pigeonholing the lyrics to specific stories defeats the purpose a bit. Rundle puts her heart into these songs, but also constructs them so that listeners can do the same in their own way, which is a subtle part of her greatness. And musically, she’s developed a desolate, austere style that conveys her ideas and stories more than words possibly could — the songs sound like they were an internal struggle and weren’t written or performed easily.

During COVID, I think I’ve leaned a little too hard into music that is escapist, using albums as a chance to “get away from it all.” Nothing is necessarily wrong with that, but Engine of Hell is a reminder that there is a lot of power in confrontational art that shows you something you don’t necessarily want to see. It captures a lot of the feelings I’ve probably been burying — more than any other album in the last couple of years, this has the soul-crushing loneliness, the hopelessness and despair, and the retreat into isolation and memory that typifies this era. And it’s conveyed with an artful plainness that makes it even darker and heavier than if Rundle had her usual loud electric guitar accompanying her. I don’t know if she necessarily set out to make an album that “speaks to the times” or anything, but in tackling her own demons, she’s made a work that is relatable and truly haunting.