The Seven Best Albums of 2021

Presented in alphabetical order.

3 — Envy on the Coast

After the birth of Violent Joy, I thought Envy on the Coast was dead. Apparently, I was wrong. 3 is what it promises: a brief, three-song return, but that’s enough. “FLASH BANG” is onomatopoeic, all big punches and explosive bombast; “GHOST” is lead-single material, hook-driven and teasingly aggressive; and “I JUST LOST A BET” is slick and suave, which makes for a nice contrast with the song’s lyrical content. With the band’s last release, 2017’s Ritual, it felt like Envy on the Coast had carved out all the pop energy that once infused their melodies, leaning deep into the southern-rock-by-way-of-Long-Island elements of their sound. Well, with 3 they picked up those remaining pieces and wrote three songs that sound nothing like anything else in their catalog. It’s a testament to their talent that both arrangements are worth hearing.

Blood Bunny — chloe moriondo

If your preferred entry in the surprisingly crowded field of ‘popstar turned pop-punker who invokes Jennifer’s Body as a metaphor for the experience of being a teenaged girl’ is Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” then, well, good for you. That’s a great song that evokes all the best parts of Riot!-era Paramore. But my pick in this burgeoning subgenre is Chloe Moriondo’s “I Eat Boys” which does what a lot of great art does: It makes you hold two conflicting ideas at the same time—here being that the song is both incredibly simple and deeply layered—and live in the joy of that tension. Which, in a certain way, is kind of the whole point of the song. And “I Eat Boys” embodies something that I didn’t state clearly enough when I wrote (a lot) about Blood Bunny earlier this year: This record is very, very fun.

Evergreen — Wolves & Machines

Over the summer, my wife and I had a patio with a fire pit installed in our backyard, the thinking being that if we’re going to be trapped in this house for who knows how long, we might as well enjoy the place. I spent a lot of summer nights staying up much longer than I had intended, listening to Evergreen as I stoked the glowing embers and watched the stars appear in a deepening sky. Like those fireside nights, rock music—or at least great rock music—has this unique ability to ground you while setting you free. Great rock music feels earthly and physical—the pounding drums and thrashing guitars and wailing vocals are so visceral, so innately connected to our tangible selves—while also pointing towards something profoundly infinite. There’s this great Wait But Why article about religion that describes those few rare moments when “your brain for a second transcends what it’s been built to do and offers you a brief glimpse into the astonishing truth of our existence,” an experience that is described as “some intense combination of awe, elation, sadness, and wonder.” Rock music can do that for me, sometimes. In a lot of ways, 2021 was a shit year, but those nights were wonderful, listening to Evergreen while balanced perfectly between the fire and the stars.

Here and Now — gates

There are some shorthand ways to communicate emotion through music: Feeling angry? How about a crescendo and some crash cymbals. Feeling introspective? Let’s cut the harmonies and isolate the lead vocal. Feeling better? We can shift from that minor key to a major one. These approaches are shorthand because they work, but when presented basically—as they often are—they’re a brute force solution. The Old Man and the Sea would have been a lot less dramatic if Santiago killed the marlin by shooting it in the head, you know? Sometimes you want careful planning and nuance, which is why I love “Pretending”, from gates’ spectacular Here and Now, so much. The song spends two-thirds of its runtime using tapping rhythms and run-on melodic phrasing to create a sense of the anxiety and self-doubt described in its lyrics. And then, just before the narrator has their moment of self-realization, a delicate bridge shifts the entire vibe of the song, lightening the mood and giving the listener a palpable sense of relief. It’s a tremendous bit of emotional storytelling and entirely indicative of what gates has given us with Here and Now.

The Idyll Opus (I-VI) — Adjy

The thing about Adjy is that I do not understand Adjy. Their first album, 2016’s fantastic EP Prelude (.3333), is 25 minutes of sparking, pattering, idiosyncratic indie-pop. And maybe it’s a story? I honestly don’t know, though I love the album dearly. But when I called Prelude (.3333) the 22nd best album of the last decade, I didn’t start my review by talking about the band’s music at all, but rather their incomprehensible bio that reads like someone trying to reorganize the notes of a schizophrenic English professor who just fell down a couple of stairways. The Idyll Opus (I-VI) continues those literary ambitions—the album is, apparently, the first half of a narrative that is as difficult to decipher as it is beautifully presented. It’s also massive, clocking in at a shockingly long 97 minutes. The Idyll Opus (I-VI) certainly lags at times, but then it will blossom into a gorgeous swell of harmony and I’ll remember why I’m still listening. Does it mean something that the album’s screenplay-like text and art are filled with cicada symbolism and iconography and that it was released just as Brood X was emerging in the eastern United States for the first time in 17 years? Probably! But I have no idea what, because, for full understanding, Adjy demands more analysis than I’m able to provide at this point in my life. For all that, I believe that there is meaning buried in all this arcane framework and, even if I can’t understand it, I love that they’ve built this world to be uncovered. I hope someone does.

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power — Halsey

One of the longest-running jokes of my online persona is that I point to some wonderful song by an under-loved niche artist and wonder why this obscure track isn’t hugely popular. Discussing Halsey, who is a bona fide musical superstar, gives me the chance to do that wondering with a bit more legitimacy. All of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is fascinating—co-producer Trent Reznor’s influence is firm but never feels forced—but I seriously do not understand how “honey” was not the biggest song of the year. It wasn’t even a single! “Girl is a Gun” is twitchy, “Bells in Santa Fe” is eerie, and “I am not a woman, I’m a god” brilliantly pairs its hook with its lyrics. But “honey” is a perfect pop song. There’s driving bass, razor-sharp melodies, great vocal performance, and an excellent arrangement that turns an acoustic guitar into a punk rock cudgel. The song says it best: I love every second, it’s fucking fantastic.

Peachy — Bad Suns

Is it cheating to include this here? Peachy is an EP comprised of the five singles Bad Suns have released in promotion of their upcoming album, Apocalypse Whenever. It’s less an album and more promotional material. But here’s the thing: I love Bad Suns. And these songs are very good and so I want to recommend them. “Heaven is a Place in My Head” is an infectious bit of ’80s revivalism, “When the World Was Mine” fits a silky melody over a thick groove, and “Baby Blue Shades” is textbook pop escalation. Bad Suns is good at this, you guys. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I do not understand why this band isn’t more popular.

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