The second year of the COVID pandemic brought more of a sense of familiarity and normalcy with quarantines, cancelled plans, and further delays. While some albums still linger in the shadow of coronavirus, many records have found a place in the new normal and feel less like commentaries on the pandemic and more introspective than years past. Of course there are a few that are direct results of lockdowns (see: the #12 pick on this list). All that being said, it feels good to finally go back to concerts, and many of these records summed up the musical trends, while being some of my favorites.
20. The Armed – Ultrapop
Hyperpop has entered the casual cultural lexicon through the rise of artists like 100gecs and even further popularized by mainstream superstars like Charli XCX. If there’s one thing that hardcore breakthrough artists like The Armed and Turnstile showed in 2021, its that more mainstream audiences are open to louder and more intense songs. The follow up to 2018’s excellent Only Love shows a band that’s ready to experiment with dynamics, and can be just as catchy as they are pulverizing.
Listen: “Faith In Medication”
19. We Are The Union – Ordinary Life
In a year where ska seemed to explode for the first time since Goldfinger had a track on Tony Hawk Pro Skater, We Are The Union felt like the biggest band at the forefront with the deeply personal album focusing on frontwoman Reade Wolcott coming out as transgender. The record embraces the confessional nature of emo, but sugarcoats it with anthemic hooks, like in the joyful “Boys Will Be Girls” or the catchy as hell mental illness jam “Broken Brain.”
Listen: “Everything Alone.”
18. Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood
While life undeniably got much better and felt much less like the world was on fire in 2021 than 2020, there was still much chaos and hard truths to face. Yasmin Williams sought to narrate the arc of 2020, but her January release helped provide much tranquility in quieter moments of the year.
17. Justin Bieber – Justice
Justin Bieber followed up one of his dullest records with one of his most inspired. Who’da thought? Aside from a few under-thought Martin Luther King samples, and an insufferably boring single, this is a really passionate love album, where the great moments outweigh the not so great ones.
Listen: “Die For You” (Feat. Dominic Fike)
16. latewaves – Hell To Pay
On their debut album, latewaves channel all the late-20s problems that so many people face (drinking, depression, and general unrest) into a series of celebratory pop-punk bangers in similar vein as the likes of The Menzingers and Pkew Pkew Pkew. Ragers like “Too Much” offer a beer-raising anthem to the fed-up-ness of the monotony of growing up, while songs like “I’m Alright,” serve to stave off the sadness with suburban poetry.
Listen: “Too Much”
15. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Most of the time when I’m looking for a shredding record, I’m looking for a record with swagger, snarls, and some underlying anger. Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime had plenty of guitar licks that reminded me of the earlier days when I was just finding and falling in love with rock music, but there’s a massive amount of joy, and a celebration of traditional music of the guitarist’s Nigerian ancestry.
Listen: “Afrique Victime”
14. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Michelle Zauner’s most recent release as Japanese Breakfast has struck her in her most catchy and ethereal yet. Jubilee feels just like that, an immense sigh of relief and the smile on your face right after, even if the songs can have more dire subject matter than the sounds would let on.
Listen: “In Hell”
13. Bleachers – Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night
Bleachers’ third album taps into Jack Antonoff’s New Jersey roots, with a modern twist on Bruce Springsteen (plus a co-sign from the Boss himself). The band’s latest album is one of their most life-affirming with tales of romance (“Chinatown”), nostalgic meditations (“45”), and songs loaded with positive messages about not letting the dreams die (“Stop Making This Hurt” and “Don’t Go Dark”).
Listen: “Stop Making This Hurt”
12. Bo Burnham – Inside
While Bo Burnham has continually put out some of the most innovative and hilarious comedy specials of the past ten years, Inside turned Burnham from an internet cult hero to a bona fide critical darling. While funny tracks like “White Woman’s Instagram” and “FaceTime With My Mom” served as hilarious palette cleansers, Burnham’s social commentary (“Funny Feeling”) and self-reflections (“30”) elevated the jokey songs to real hits. Even though there are plenty of laughs, Burnham’s time offstage has translated to making him a strong songwriter, and this record proves it (with maybe a little help from TikTok).
Listen: “Welcome To The Internet”
11. Turnstile – Glow On
Hardcore’s biggest breakout stars forced heavy music into the mainstream. Turnstile have been growing for over a decade, and embracing both the abrasive and melodic aspects of punk turned Glow On into a bonafide hit. Tracks like “Blackout” and “Holiday” are catchy, while getting people ready to hop in a pit.
Listen: “T.L.C. (Turnstile Love Connection)”
10. The Dirty Nil – Fuck Art
While Mdou Moctar’s record brought the joy, The Dirty Nil’s Fuck Art, which dropped on New Year’s Day is jam-packed with the snarling type of rockstardom that the traditional face-melting record would. The Nil jam-pack songs about sobering up (“Done With Drugs”), jamming to loud music in your mom’s car (“Doom Boy”), and making lasting relationships with your parents (“Elvis 77”) to shredding riffs and real rock and roll mentality.
Listen: “Doom Boy”
9. Home Is Where – I Became Birds
The fifth wave emo stalwarts took the scene by storm with a short album that merges genres in a loving send-up that shows that the next crop of emo bands are ready to revolutionize the genre in the way that bands like TWIABP, Modern Baseball and others did in the early 2010s. Home is Where easily transition between folky yelps and screamo walls-of-sound, and all with the brevity of punk predecessors. Just listen to “Sewn Togeterh from the Membrane of the Great Sea Cucumber” to hear it all in one song.
Listen: “L. Ron Hubbard Was Way Cool”
8. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Illusory Walls
Emo revival greats TWIABP made themselves completely reborn with their fourth full-length. The album is both filled with callbacks that hardcore fans will love (like the inclusion of Chris Zizzamia on “Fewer Afraid”) to pulverizing songs that wouldn’t sound out of places on metal records (“Invading the World of the Guilty as a Spirit of Vengeance”).
Listen: “Died in the Prison of the Holy Office”
7. Origami Angel – Gami Gang
Origami Angel elevated themselves with their sophomore album. After showing off their excellently catchy approach through the Gen 3 EP and 2019’s Somewhere City, Gami Gang (named for their fanbase) is a record that bounces between genres. Singer Ryland Heagy has a voice that recalls the likes of Ben Gibbard in tracks like “Neutrogena Spektor,” can easily break into screams on heavier tracks. It’s an album that hits so many bases, ranging from synthpop to emo to straight-up hardcore.
6. Morgan Wade – Reckless
While Morgan Wade’s debut solo album may have the appearance of a punk rocker or a Soundcloud rapper, the Virginia singer brings the same rough-around-the-edges quality that those genres have to an eloquent country record. Songs like “Don’t Cry” and “Other Side” offer the type of authentic Americana that fans of critically-acclaimed alt-country stars adore.
5. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
Julien Baker’s long-awaited third full-length reinvented her as a singer-songwriter, whose ready to embrace her own rockstar nature. While she’s built up her sound, this also became her more open and honest record. Recounting tales of addiction start with the opening line on the album (“Blacked out on a week day”), and the album pulverizes your emotions the whole time.
Listen: “Song In E”
4. Save Face – Another Kill For The Highlight Reel
The theatrical New Jersey DIY band chronicle the golden era of emo by releasing an album that sounds like it could have been made by My Chemical Romance between Three Cheers and Black Parade. The band’s blood soaked sophomore album showcased virtuosic musicianship accompanied with emotive lyrics, jam-packed with gore, violence, and showmanship in the most fun way. The macabre lyrics are celebrated in arena-ready songs like “Watch You Die Again” and “Bury Me (Tonight).”
Listen: “Please Murder Me”
3. Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
Tyler, The Creator continues his streak of topping his previous album. After Igor received tons of criticial acclaim following the career-shifting Flower Boy, Tyler’s latest album has his most diverse sonic palette and boasts some of his most insightful lyrics. In some of the most touching moments, he offers commentary on some of his career’s highlights (like dissing Selena Gomez or explaining Cherry Bomb’s production). While Flower Boy remains Tyler’s crowning achievement (in my opinion), CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST marks Tyler seeming comfortable and celebratory, taking a victory lap for his biggest records.
Listen: “HOT WIND BLOWS”
2. Lucy Dacus – Home Video
“The future is a benevolent black hole,” Lucy Dacus sings in “Cartwheel” in a rare moment, not reflecting on past experiences. Much of the record looks back on religious upbringing and past relationships with an adult hindsight. In what’s easily her most musically ambitious record, Lucy examines high school romance (“Hot & Heavy”, “Brando”), friendships (“Christine”, “Thumbs”), and religious impacts (“VBS”). Home Video can easily transport an older listener back to those times in their lives, and it opened up a lot of wounds with the care needed to clear out any lingering residue.
Listen: “Partner in Crime”
1. Harmony Woods – Graceful Rage
Few records are as fully immersive as Harmony Woods’ Graceful Rage. The Bartees Strange-produced record is an atmospheric meditation on grief, trauma, and recovery. Sofia Verbilla doesn’t beat around the bush in emotive and atmospheric tracks like the closer “I Can’t”, the farewell in “End” to the barn-burning pop-punk anthms like “God Gifts to Women.”
Listen: “Good Luck Rd.”
Dropkick Murphys – Turn Up That Dial
Foxing – Draw Down The Moon
The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy
The Killers – Pressure Machine
Kississippi – Mood Ring
The Mountain Goats – Dark In Here
Parannoul – To See The Next Part of the Dream
Pet Symmetry – Future Suits
Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR
Jeff Rosenstock – Ska Dream
Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
Tigers Jaw – I Won’t Care How You Remember Me
Kanye West – Donda
EPs I Loved:
Arm’s Length – Everything Nice
Future Teens – Deliberately Alive
Portrayal of Guilt – Christfucker/We Are Always Alone