Alex’s Top 100 Albums of 2021

For more than a decade, I’ve made it a tradition to compile my favorite albums of each year come January, using the months prior to revisit and reevaluate hundreds of albums. 

2021 was an undeniably strange year for everyone – musicians and music fans alike – having been locked down the year prior and largely lacking live music, and I think the music released directly reflects this, a definite heavy weight and darkness purveyed in much of it.

So, yet again, here are my favorite albums from 2021, including a Spotify playlist at the bottom. – Alex Wood

1. Squid – Bright Green Field

While dark, angular post-punk seemed to dominate the rock scene this past year, Squid’s debut album, Bright Green Field, stole the show. Recorded during the lockdown of 2020, the young five-piece add art-rock influences that separate them from peers, the entire album begging to be heard as a whole. From the instrumental interludes to the layers of horns to the passionate vocal delivery throughout, Squid created the perfect blend of sounds within the genre, never seeming overly derivative of their influences while also never settling into a singular, defining sound. Poetic and unpredictable, the lyrics remain a driving force, their unfettered creativity often giving a stream-of-consicousness feel. Dark and unrelenting, Bright Green Field is inevitably not for everyone, but felt like a spotlight of youthful, creative energy not only in the post-punk scene, but the 2021 music scene as a whole.

2. Amigo The Devil – Born Against

Austin, Texas singer-songwriter Danny Kiranos has been working on a distinct brand of songwriting since his 2018 debut. With Born Against, he truly perfected it. Combine the dark humor of Shel Silverstein, the creative storytelling of Tom Waits and the classic-but-unpredictable musical styles of Man Man and Murder By Death, and you may find Born Against somewhere in the middle of this messy Venn diagram. From the explosive, operatic opener to the horn-laden stomp of “Murder At The Bingo Hall” to the banjo-led folk of “Better Ways To Fry A Fish” to the soft, sentimental closer “Letter From Death Row,” Kiranos leads listeners through a dizzying array of styles, all defined by his animated, fervent delivery. There’s an attention to detail in the layered production, yet the scores of background vocals, horns and other instruments never interrupt the focus on the songwriting and spacious folk arrangements. The morbid songs may borrow from an extremely wide array of influences, but Born Against finds Amigo The Devil truly discovering his own, unique voice.

3. Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh & Tyshawn Sorey- Uneasy

Creating a true jazz classic in the modern age is no small feat, but Uneasy is about as close to such as I’ve ever heard. Combining the insanely skilled trio of pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, Uneasy builds endlessly on a spacious yet well-informed form of improvisation, relying primarily on Iyer’s original compositions while slipping in a few standards. As the title alludes to, there’s an intense sense of urgency throughout, only furthered by the political commentary of songs like “Children Of Flint” or “Combat Breathing.” There’s a sense of urgency even in the slower or solo sections, the trio making sure every note counts and paying close attention to the space they leave between them. For those looking for the absolute best musicianship from this past year, look no further than Uneasy. 

4. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – CARNAGE

Songwriters and composers Nick Cave & Warren Ellis created an undeniably dark but beautiful album with CARNAGE. The two artists have collaborated consistently for nearly three decades, performing in The Bad Seeds and Grinderman and writing 15 theater scores and soundtracks, the consistent teamwork leading to the ability to create art as tasteful and moving as the songs on this album. The songs have a cinematic nature, often utilizing dense string arrangements and a large range of dynamics. Lyrically, the songs remain poetic and surreal, expressing a broad range of emotional depth, Cave’s delivery inspired and affecting. The pacing of the album itself deserves recognition, beginning with the brash “Hand Of God,” building to the emotional climax of “White Elephant” and easing down from there with gorgeous, spacious, string-laden ballads like “Shattered Ground.” Finding a halfway point between their soundtrack work and the Bad Seeds albums of the last decade, CARNAGE is a stunning, collaborative effort that fully displays both artists’ incredible artistic strengths.

5. My Morning Jacket – My Morning Jacket

A rare and much-needed beacon of light in 2021’s music releases, My Morning Jacket’s self-titled album offers the exact type of optimism fans have come to expect from frontman Jim James. While the lyrics to songs like “Love Love Love” and “Lucky To Be Alive” may sound too cheesy delivered by any other band, it’s the incredible music backing James that sells the package. The band recently backed Strand Of Oaks on multiple albums, recorded and toured behind Ray LaMontagne, and keyboardist Bo Koster toured with Roger Waters. This ability to adapt shows on the record, driving My Morning Jacket new directions while remaining rooted in classic rock, psychedelic rock and more than the occasional jam band flourish. The band’s nearly unparalleled ability to drive songs to huge rock climaxes are on full display on tracks like “In Color” and “I Never Could Get Enough,” methodically slow burning to massive heights. Koster’s keyboard work is at his best, while guitarist Carl Broemel remains one of the most engaging performers in the modern rock world. Though far from a masterpiece, My Morning Jacket is an album to get you through these uncertain times, a little sliver of hope offered in the form of fantastic musicianship. 

6. Greta Van Fleet – The Battle At Garden’s Gate

If you’ve listened to Greta Van Fleet, you probably have one of two opinions on the young Michigan four-piece – you hate them for sounding too similar to Led Zeppelin, or you love for even being capable of such a comparison. Drop the comparison, and you find a band in their early 20’s with more talent than most musicians could work toward over a lifetime. The Battle At Garden’s Gate continues their foray into classic rock influences while showing serious development as a band. Denser compositions and instrumentation, more difficult time signatures, less predictable arrangements, and an overall more mature sound show some serious growth. With killer guitar riffs that can stand the test of time paired with a band truly tuned into a singular vision, I refuse to buy the close-minded “copycat” argument. 

7. Ty Segall – Harmonizer 

Sometimes an album from an artist with plenty of critical recognition seems to fall between the cracks, and Harmonizer certainly feels like one. The extremely prolific garage-rock revivalist released the album as a surprise and, as usual, has reinvented his sound into something completely new. While still hanging onto the scuzzy garage sound of his early days, Harmonizer introduces electronic elements, as foreshadowed from the instrumental intro track. The songs feature layers upon layers of guitars, innumerable pedal effects, and the riffs remain simple but melodic. It’s an effective method that creates a hard-rocking sound, messy but infectious, dizzying but clean. Segall’s lyrics match this simplicity perfectly, his vocal tone often recalling T. Rex, but imagining if he fronted Queens Of The Stone Age. It’s a loud, ragged ‘rock ’n roll’ record by all regards, and sees Segall continuing to tap into a seemingly endless well of creativity and new ideas. 

8. Parquet Courts – Sympathy For Life

It’s impossible to even write this capsule review for Sympathy For Life without looking at how Parquet Courts made it to this point. From the beginning, the band had their sound nailed down – post-punk influences mixed with their clever speak-sung lyrics and a whole lot of energy. Flash forward to 2018’s Wide Awake!, an album shockingly produced by Danger Mouse with a slick production and somewhat funky, foward-mixed bass lines, which brought the band to a larger audience. This past year’s follow-up, Sympathy For Life, doesn’t simply revel in the success of the last album’s sound, but seems to take what they learned in the studio and continue to progress. The bass lines are still up front (and still amazing), and the layered production shows few signs from their raw early days, but the band has seemed to have taken a more open creative route. The musical arrangements are unpredictable and sporadic, packing a multitude of ideas, sounds and instruments into each song without ever creating a mess. Lyrically, this may be the band’s best work, combining wry social commentary with meaningful observations, and what really makes the album one of the year’s best. It may require multiple serious listens to really sink in, but Sympathy For Life is amongst 2021’s most rewarding releases.

9. Lucy Dacus – Home Video

Virginian songwriter Lucy Dacus already has an impressive body of work at age 26, each solo album seeming to be better than the last. Home Video features some of the best songwriting of the year, and seems to be one of the only albums most critics agreed on in a very strange year for music. The songs look back at Dacus’s past- whether it’s friendships, relationships, parents, teenage years or church camps- and analyzes them with such clear perception and emotion, that the listener is given a literal look inside her head, and how she made it to where she is now. The songs are generally sad but catchy, a strange juxtaposition that few can make work this well. At it’s saddest is the albums centerpiece, “Thumbs,” a song about accompanying a friend as she painfully meets with her deadbeat, estranged father. 

“I would kill him if you let me / I would kill him quick and easy / Your nails are digging into my knee / I don’t know how you keep smiling”

Delivered calmly with a keenly observant nature, it’s the kind of song that moves you immediately, sucks you in and drops your jaw. A must-hear release from this year, songwriting of this caliber doesn’t come by often. 

10. Heartless Bastards – Revolution

Heartless Bastards’ first studio album in six years sounds more like a solo effort for Erika Wennerstrom, who has fronted the band since its inception in 2005, and is frankly all the better for it. Essentially using a session band including My Morning Jacket keyboardist Bo Koster and Okkervil River guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo, amongst others with equally impressive resumes, the album shows a maturity in musicianship that matches its wonderful and cohesive songwriting. Wennerstrom turns away from her own life and emotions, instead taking a look at the state of the world as a whole, as outlined by the Dylan-esque opener “Revolution.” Drawing primarily from classic rock influences while leaning into the modern Americana sound, Revolution sounds both familiar and refreshing, but finds Wennerstrom’s songwriting at its absolute peak. There’s a consistent sonic template that holds the album together while allowing the band to explore different directions and ideas, while largely shedding the band’s previous blues sound altogether. 

11. Iceage – Seek Shelter

12. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

13. Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & London Symphony Orchestra- Promises

14. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – L.W.

15. Ryley Walker – Course In Fable

16. Turnstile – Glow On

17. The Black Keys – Delta Kream

18. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Butterfly 3000

19. Amyl and the Sniffers – Comfort To Me

20. Tash Sultana – Terra Firma

21. Foo Fighters – Medicine At Midnight

22. Royal Blood – Typhoons

23. Brandi Carlile – In These Silent Days

24. Black Country, New Road – For The First Time

25. Jon Batiste – WE ARE

26. Hayes Carll – You Get It All

27. Chet Faker – Hotel Surrender

28. Deerhoof – Actually, You Can

29. Illuminati Hotties – Let Me Do One More

30. Pom Pom Squad – Death Of A Cheerleader

31. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite

32. McKinley Dixon – For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her

33. Kenny Garrett – Sounds From The Ancestors

34. Gov’t Mule – Heavy Load Blues

35. Nicole Atkins – Memphis Ice

36. Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange

37. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

38. L’Rain – Fatigue

39. Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak – An Evening With Silk Sonic

40. The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore

41. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime

42. Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad Of Dood And Juanita

43. Chubby and the Gang – The Mutt’s Nuts

44. Adele – 30

45. St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home

46. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

47. Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales

48. Strand of Oaks – In Heaven

49. Durand Jones & The Indications – Private Space

50. Sault – Nine

51. Navy Blue – Navy’s Reprise

52. El Michels Affair – Yeti Season

53. Psychedelic Porn Crumpets – SHYGA! The Sunlight Mound

54. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians – Hunter And The Dog Star

55. Madlib – Sound Ancestors

56. Charley Crockett – Music City USA

57. Viagra Boys – Wellfare Jazz

58. Billy Strings – Renewal

59. Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram

60. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

61. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time

62. Pokey LaFarge – In The Blossom Of Their Shade

63. Low – Hey What

64. Mike – Disco!

65. SUSTO – Time In The Sun

66. Shame – Drunk Tank Pink

67. Sleater-Kinney – Path Of Wellness

68. Bill Callahan & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Blind Date Party

69. Maggie Rose – Have A Seat

70. Hiatus Kaiyote – Mood Valiant

71. Modest Mouse – The Golden Casket

72. Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funy haha

73. Dr. Lonnie Smith – Breathe

74. The Weather Station – Ignorance

75. Geese – Projector

76. Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams

77. Sons Of Kemet – Black To The Future

78. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats – The Future

79. Valerie June – The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers

80. The Spirit Of The Beehive – Entertainment, Death

81. Juliana Hatfield – Blood

82. Makaya McCraven – Deciphering The Message

83. JMSN – Heals Me

84. IDLES – Crawler

85. Mach-Hommy – Pray For Haiti

86. Civic – Future Forecast

87. Mild High Club – Going Going Gone

88. Pillow Queens – In Waiting

89. Porter Robinson – Nurture

90. Birds Of Maya – Valdez

91. James McMurtry – The Horses And The Hounds

92. Monster Magnet – A Better Dystopia

93. Yebba – Dawn

94. Floatie – Voyage Out

95. Marissa Nadler – The Path Of The Clouds

96. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg

97. They Might Be Giants – Book

98. Boldy James & The Alchemist – Bo Jackson

99. Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble – NOW

100. Robert Plant & Allison Krauss – Raise The Roof

Honorable Mentions:

101. Cory Hanson – Pale Horse Rider

102. The Mountain Goats – Dark In Here

103. Chai – WINK

104. LUMP – Animal

105. Darkside – Spiral

106. Fiddlehead – Between The Richness

107. Curren$y & The Alchemist – Covert Coup

108. black midi – Cavalcade

109. Aaron Frazer – Introducing…

110. The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy

111. Mammoth WVH – Mammoth WVH

112. Liam Kazar – Due North

113. Menahan Street Band – The Exciting Sounds Of Menahan Street Band

114. The Go! Team – Get Up Sequences Part One

115. Dinosaur Jr. – Sweep It Into Space

116. Matt Sweeney & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Superwolves

117. Big Red Machine – How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?

118. Half Waif – Mythopoetics

119. Rostam – Changephobia

120. Nas – King’s Disease II

121. Tony Joe White – Smoke From The Chimney

122. The Wallflowers – Exit Wounds

123. Tune-Yards – sketchy.

124. Red Fang – Arrows

125. Flock Of Dimes – Head Of Roses

126. Nation Of Language – A Way Forward

127. Allison Russell – Outside Child

128. Clairo – Sling

129. Sufjan Stevens – A Beginner’s Mind

130. Cold Cave – Fate In Seven Lessons

131. Bela Fleck – My Bluegrass Heart

132. Shannon & The Clams – Year Of The Spider

133. Snail Mail – Valentine

134. TV Priest – Uppers

135. Georgia Anne Muldrow – VWETO III

136. Garbage – No Gods No Masters

137. Wiki – Half God

138. Proxima Parada – Second Brother

139. Badbadnotgood – Talk Memory

140. Delvon Lamarr Trio – I Told You So

141. The Record Company – Play Loud

142. Water From Your Eyes – Structure

143. Lord Huron – Long Lost

144. Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

145. Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince

146. Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club

147. Yola – Stand For Myself

148. Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia

149. Elder & Kadavar – ELDOVAR – A Story Of Darkness & Light

150. Jimbo Mathus & Andrew Bird – These 13