My 2021 AOTY List

thank you 2 the academy

I’m glad people are putting out albums. A lot of good ones came out this year. That’s nice. The world is still terrible and COVID still fucking sucks, but the music is good. I listened to 517 full albums this year, 130 of which were released in 2021. Here are the most-Good albums, in my opinion, from 2021. If you disagree, it’s okay, you are just wrong. Taking a week off from the regular scheduled Rolling Stone list programming for a list that is conclusively better. Thanks.

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical):

2nd Grade — Wish You Were Here Tour Revisited (Sleeper Records); The Armed — Ultrapop (Sargent House); Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview on Phenomenal Nature (Ba Da Bing Records); Charlie Martin — Imaginary People (Grand Jury Music); Clairo — Sling (FADER Label); Hurry — Fake Ideas (Lame-O Records); James McMurtry — The Horses and the Hounds (New West Records); King Woman — Celestial Blues (Relapse Records); Kowloon Walled City — Piecework (Neurot Recordings); Mogwai — As the Love Continues (Rock Action Records); Møl — Diorama (Nuclear Blast); Silk Sonic — An Evening with Silk Sonic (Atlantic); Steve Gunn — Other You (Matador Records); Sturgill Simpson — The Ballad of Dood and Juanita (High Top Mountain); Weezer — OK Human (Crush Music)

I like all these records a lot. Some of them border on love. We have a few legacy acts (McMurtry; Mogwai; Weezer), some that put out some of my favorite releases of the last decade (Kowloon Walled City; Møl; Simpson), and some new discoveries (2nd Grade; Jenkins; King Woman), among others. While these records weren’t ones I went back to as much as others in the year, they all have their charm and more than a handful of songs that feel up there with the best of the year.

THE TOP 50 — #50-#46:

50. Sleater-Kinney — Path of Wellness (Mom + Pop Music)

49. Manchester Orchestra — The Million Masks of God (Loma Vista Recordings)

48. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis — Carnage (Goliath Records)

47. Converge, Chelsea Wolfe and Stephen Brodsky — Bloodmoon I (Epitaph Records/Deathwish Inc.)

46. Iceage — Seek Shelter (Mexican Summer)

This group includes releases from four of my favorite groups/musicians of the last 15 or so years, and then Sleater-Kinney, who I am woefully late on coming around to. A few of them pushed the boundaries of what we thought the groups were capable of (Manchester Orchestra; Converge) and a few doubled down on their respective formulas and continued a streak of consistency (Nick Cave; Iceage). The borderline The Rolling Stones-meets-Spiritualized pastiche of Seek Shelter, especially, felt like a band fully coming into their own.

THE TOP 50 — #45-#41:

45. Black Country, New Road — For the First Time (Ninja Tune)

44. Wolves in the Throne Room — Primordial Arcana (Relapse Records)

43. Snail Mail — Valentine (Matador Records)

42. Geese — Projector (Partisan Records)

41. Buck Meek — Two Saviors (Keeled Scales Records)

The total inverse of the last group — four bands completely unfamiliar to me and then the best band in Black Metal. The two post-punk bands here (BC,NR; Geese) took a decades-old genre and put a Zoomer spin on it in a way that I found to be super refreshing. Snail Mail, while maybe lower than the placement on many publications’ lists, really wowed me with the lyricism and vocal delivery present in a way I didn’t really expect. Wolves in the Throne Room are the best Black Metal band and have been for some time. This is one of their best releases. But man, Buck Meek. Two Saviors clicked for me immediately in a way that no Big Thief (his day job) album really has. It takes the singer-songwriter mold that’s been done for much longer than I’ve been alive and freaks it just the right amount, with distortion and off-kilter instrumentation.

THE TOP 50 — #40-#36:

40. Idles — CRAWLER (Partisan Records)

39. Wolf Alice — Blue Weekend (Dirty Hit)

38. Rostam — Changephobia (Secretly Distribution)

37. Vince Staples — Vince Staples (Blacksmith Records)

36. The Dirty Nil — Fuck Art (Dine Alone Records)

It’s the Year of the Nil. The other albums here are good, but I will only be Talking About the Nil. God dammit, they’re so good. I really loved their previous album, Master Volume, and Fuck Art to took the Nil Knob and turned it up to 11, a reference I’m sure they would appreciate. No band knows their lane and sticks to it better than these guys, merging the Power-Pop of Cheap Trick, the riffs of Slayer, and the Stadium-Rock of Foo Fighters into a mold that rules so much. Brb, gonna go blast this in my Dodge Caravan. Jesus christ, no record this year is more fun.

THE TOP 50 — #35-#31:

35. Andy Shauf — Wilds (Anti-)

34. Downhaul — Proof (Refresh Records)

33. Flock of Dimes — Head of Roses (Sub Pop Records)

32. Deafheaven — Infinite Granite (Sargent House)

31. Courtney Barnett — Things Take Time, Take Time (Milk! Records)

A good mix of new discoveries and old favorites here. Deafheaven released what is probably their most challenging record, though there’s plenty of greatness in Infinite Granite; Jenn Wasner came back with some awesome guitar, dusting off the Flock of Dimes project; and Andy Shauf continued with his brand of kind of Wilco-lite singer-songwriter stuff, which is a lane I enjoy a ton. Downhaul is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. I had never heard of them before and the kinda emo, kinda shoegaze, kinda alt-country (the pedal steel on the last track left me slack-jawed) release really floored me. And then there’s Courtney Barnett, one of the most consistent artists of the last decade, releasing one of her most stripped-down and best albums yet.

THE TOP 50 — #30-#26:

30. A Great Big Pile of Leaves — Pono (Topshelf Records)

29. Pino Palladino + Blake Mills — Notes with Attachments (Impulse! Records)

28. Quicksand — Distant Populations (Epitaph Records)

27. The War on Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore (Atlantic)

26. Dazy — MAXIMUMBLASTSUPERLOUD (Convulse Records)

Man. I’m so glad AGBPOL is back. No one sounds like them and, while it’s not a sound I reach for a ton, they do it so incredibly well. The War on Drugs was maybe my favorite band of the 2010s, with multiple albums in the top 25 of my End of the Decade list, so I Don’t Live Here Anymore being outside of the top 25 of this year’s list might seem like a disappointment, but really it’s just more of a credit to the other albums in this incredibly strong year. Dazy is another one of my favorite discoveries of the year, mixing the fuzz of a Dinosaur Jr. album, the songwriting and melodies of Oasis, and expertly-crafted drum machines, making an incredible mix.

THE TOP 50 — #25-#21:

25. Ryley Walker — Course in Fable (Husky Pants Records)

24. One Step Closer — This Place You Know (Run for Cover Records)

23. Worst Party Ever — Dartland (No Sleep Records)

22. Hovvdy — True Love (Grand Jury Music)

21. Dinosaur Jr. — Sweep It Into Space (Jagjaguwar)

J. Mascis could fart through a Big Muff for 30 minutes and it’d probably make my EOTY list every time he decides to do so. Dinosaur Jr. has had such a remarkable post-hiatus run that I think at this point you could pretty fairly argue the albums from Beyond on stand up with, if not surpass, the classic records. Sweep It Into Space isn’t my favorite of the records since the band got back together (Farm) but it finds a solid place in the band’s discography. These other albums are good too. Shoutout Ryley, shoutout Rockford, IL.

20. Faye Webster — I Know I’m Funny haha (Secretly Canadian)

This kinda takes the Phoebe Bridgers formula, amps up the humor and reduces the sadness, and turns out a pretty awesome result. It’s my introduction to Webster, who is now an artist I’m going to be looking out for in the future in a big way.

19. Strand of Oaks — In Heaven (Thirty Tigers)

Timothy Showalter’s solo project has always been one that I’ve respected, but never one that really fully excited me, until In Heaven. Accompanied by members of My Morning Jacket, the songs take full shape as singer-songwriter tunes taken out to space and back again. These songs could just as easily be reimagined as stripped-down folk songs as they could be fully expansive Pink Floyd-esque tunes, but they probably work best in the form that we received them. Tim knows what he’s doing, and he’s doing it incredibly well.

18. Mo Troper — Dilettante (self-released)

After releasing a full cover album of Revolver by, uhh, The Beatles, Troper has been one of my favorite COVID discoveries. This collection of 28 power-pop gems in 49 minutes is one of the most infectious albums of the year, mixing the weird chord changes of the Fab Four, the occasional vocal delivery of Alex Chilton, and fuzz-blown guitar. Also, peep the artwork. Hell yeah.

17. Ben Howard — Collections from the Whiteout (Island Records)

I’ve never had much interest in open tunings. Like, I’m not Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell, so why bother? However, Ben is Not Me, he is actually Good. This is his most out-there album, mixing production from Aaron Dessner, drum machines, and a spaceship-sized rig of delay pedals. A far cry from his first two albums and a nice progression.

16. Tyler, the Creator — Call Me if You Get Lost (Columbia Records)

Tyler is on such a roll. I couldn’t stand him for the longest time but his run from Flower Boy to this point is kind of unparalleled. Production, lyrics, cadence. All of it. Also, “Mama Talk.” “Mama Talk” rules.

15. Jimmy Montague — Casual Use (Chillwavve Records)

Saxophone is the first instrument I learned to play, and I kinda lose my shit whenever I hear it used in non-dipshit ways. Casual Use is chock-full of it, alongside geat piano, guitar and other shit. Jimmy mixes vocals that kinda reach into Richard Manuel territory, Steely Dan-esque keys, and A+ songwriting. I fucking love this album, and it would probably be higher if I had more time with it this year.

14. The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die — Illusory Walls (Epitaph Records)

“Infinite Josh” is the best song of the year, followed by “Fewer Afraid,” which is the second-best song of the year. Ending your 70-minute album with two songs totaling 25 minutes is A Choice and is one that I fully back. Giving the reigns fully to guitarist/producer Chris Teti was such a smart move, adding in influences of Cave In and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Once you hear the band incorporate those sounds, it’s kind of a wonder they haven’t been doing it the whole time.

13. Spirit Was — Heaven’s Just a Cloud (Danger Collective Records)

RIP LVL Up; long live LVL Up. Nick Corbo, the mastermind behind Spirit Was (one of LVL Up’s best songs) and the former bassist/vocalist of LVL Up, always toyed with Metal and fantasy literature in his songs with LVL Up, without fully committing. Heaven’s Just a Cloud is evidence of what he can cook up when fully committing, and it’s fucking awesome. Mixing his brand of Slowcore-leaning Indie Rock, Metal, and found sounds comes close to Mount Eerie, but goes off on enough of its own tangents to be pretty unique and one of the year’s most fascinating listens.

12. Dry Cleaning — New Long Leg (4AD)

Look, I’m not going to try to sell you on this one. Pull up a live video and watch ten seconds of it. If you make it those ten seconds without closing the tab, you’ll probably love the album. Almost everyone I’ve shown this to has not lasted ten seconds. Their loss. Funniest album of the year. More music should try to be funny.

11. Madlib and Four Tet — Sound Ancestors (Madlib Invazions)

I’m not going to pretend to be the most literate writer in the world about this album. It’s just a visceral thing. I enjoyed it. It brought up a lot of the feelings I had listening to J Dilla’s Donuts for the first time, which seems intentional since one of the tracks is titled “Two for 2 — For Dilla.” Please check this out.

10. Mastodon — Hushed and Grim (Reprise Records)

Another one I probably won’t convince anyone on. Chances are if you’re interested in Mastodon in 2021, you’ve probably already heard this album. Trying to convince the uninitiated into checking out an 86-minute long concept album about the soul’s journey after death sounds incredibly foolish. The thing I’ll say is that Riffs are Important and this album has the best riffs of the year.

9. Sons of Kemet — Black to the Future (Impulse! Records)

This is the point of the list where I run the risk of just shouting “FUCK! THIS ALBUM RULES!!!” about every album remaining. But, man, does this album rule. I found out about Sons of Kemet in probably the dumbest way possible, which is seeing that their drummer would be releasing a side-project with Thom Yorke. Way to miss the point. But I’m incredibly glad I found it. I mentioned earlier that saxophone was my first instrument. I’ve never heard a sax sound the way it does in the final two minutes of “Let the Circle Be Unbroken.” Simply sensational.

8. Another Michael — New Music and Big Pop (Run For Cover Records)

Things are allowed to just be pleasant. Keep it simple.

7. Fiddlehead — Between the Richness (Run For Cover Records)

For quite a few months, this was my Album of the Year. Guitars rarely sound this good. Vocals rarely sound this good, in this kind of post-hardcore genre. Drums rarely sound this good. And the lyrics are the best part. Just a perfect kinda-emo, kinda-whatever album.

6. Aeon Station — Observatory (Sub Pop)

Because the world is Bad, we are probably never getting the follow-up to The Meadowlands. I’m trying to get over it. Luckily, Kevin Whelan made it a bit easier by taking a handful of songs that would have been on said follow-up, fleshing them out with the rest of a full record, and making a final product that stands up there with the best of the Wrens. I never thought it would have happened, but I’m a fool for ever doubting him. What an album.

5. Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee (Dead Oceans)

Michelle Zauner had quite a year. She dropped a memoir, signed a deal to develop said memoir into a fucking movie, and dropped one of the best rock albums of the year. Wtf. Shoutout to being talented. “Posing for Cars” maybe nails Wilco’s A Ghost is Born’s aesthetic better than anyone else, including Wilco, has since. High praise.

4. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra (Luaka Bop)

I feel like a fool for finding out who Pharoah Sanders is through Floating Points, as opposed to the other way around. What a legend. This album — which is really just one long suite of music — feels wholly unique and is responsible for getting me into more jazz than usual this year, which is to say more than one album a year. I feel excited to jump into an entire history of music, and it’s largely due to this one album. Have I mentioned I like the saxophone? I do.

3. Wild Pink — A Billion Little Lights (Royal Mountain Records)

Only one album this year dropped the lyric “you’re a fucking baby but your pain is valid too.”

2. Turnstile — Glow On (Roadrunner Records)

Nothing is more fun than this album. Try having fun for once. Some dude had so much fun in the pit for one of the release shows for this record that he crapped his pants. Have you ever had that much fun in your miserable life?

  1. Low — HEY WHAT (Sub Pop)

I play a few different instruments, ranging from Moderately Okay to I’m Not Sure He Can Actually Say He Plays This at each. I almost never have any idea what instrument I’m listening to while listening to a Low album. I fucking love it. No band out there is more exciting. This has everything I like about music, usually all going on at the same time. If one album from this year feels integral, it is this one. A large part, if not all, of 2021 felt like the world was ending. I can’t imagine a better Soundtrack to the Apocalypse, or album this year, than HEY WHAT.

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