The 31 Best Rock Albums of 2021

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Saddle Creek

Indigo De Souza: Any Shape You Take

Tapping into a deep well of human emotion, Indigo De Souza makes familiar experiences feel new. The North Carolina musician’s writing and delivery are so unguarded that you can’t help but relate, whether she’s screaming in anguish or reassuring a loved one that things will be OK. Her second album, Any Shape You Take, often feels like a series of battles as she fights off ghosts, both real and imagined, in an attempt to gain understanding. “I wanna be a light,” she sings, and when she shines, the brightness can be overwhelming. In fact, it’s all you can see. –Kelly Liu

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Dead Oceans

Japanese Breakfast: Jubilee

After two albums and a best-selling memoir that grappled with her mother’s death, grief had been a top note in Michelle Zauner’s work for too long. On Jubilee, her splashy third album as Japanese Breakfast, Zauner sucks up life through a crazy straw. She boosts her sound for a growing audience without smoothing over her idiosyncrasies, taking inspiration from the daily battle to tame one’s anxieties, from capitalist buffoonery, and even from the concept of inspiration itself. “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers?” she sings. The answer is hers to divulge. –Olivia Horn

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Liquids: Life is pain Idiot

More than a bratty voice who can yammer out classic rock standards at triple speed, prolific Northwest Indiana punk Mat Williams is a multi-instrumentalist who explores a broad cross-section of rock’n’roll without painting himself into an aesthetic corner. On his latest album Life is pain, Idiot, the tightly written one-minute punk burner “When You Were Born (You Should’ve Died)” leads into the emotionally ambivalent power-pop of “Don’t Wanna Get to Know You.” He’s singing a full-on ballad with “Night the Lights Went Out,” and one song later, it’s Oi! worship. There are 27 songs on Life is pain, Idiot—an embarrassment of riches from a dude who somehow consistently tops his extremely fun cover of Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell.” –Evan Minsker

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Sub Pop


Nearly 30 years into their career, Low have moved beyond simply writing great songs: They are now focused on the way those songs travel from the speakers to our ears: a strange, circuitous journey that makes HEY WHAT feel like genuinely new territory. It is easy to imagine any of these 10 warped, noisy pieces of music in stripped-down arrangements. In fact, most of the songs tease that kind of delivery: Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices arrive in unison like folk singers, stripped of effects and clear in the mix, every word audible and sung in simple, hummable melodies. But with producer BJ Burton, Sparhawk and Parker interrupt and distort themselves, filtering their stark, psalm-like compositions through the kind of processing that makes a guitar solo squeal into feedback, or the sound from your speakers clip into static. It is a beautiful, adventurous album from a band who is letting their music fall into disorder and who, in doing so, have never sounded more in control. –Sam Sodomsky

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Lucy Dacus: Home Video

Not many people willingly revisit the tumult of their teen years, but on her third album Home Video, Lucy Dacus embraces a perspective gained only by the passage of time. Atop synths like glowing orbs and hushed strumming, she recalls the loneliness of being a late bloomer, the confusion of burgeoning queerness, and the hormonal paradise that was Christian sleepaway camp. In these quietly unspooling songs, Dacus lifts scenes straight from her journals and renders them anew with poetic sensuality: flushed red cheeks, sun-kissed skin, the crescent moon indents of nails pressed into flesh, and a looming future. –Quinn Moreland

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Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime

Mdou Moctar first riveted listeners as a wedding performer in his home country of Niger; his live recordings circulated over shared SIM cards. Since then, he’s continued to find electrified approaches to the vernacular music of his Tuareg background with uninhibited guitar. On Afrique Victime, his first release for Matador, Moctar chases lively arrangements even further while excoriating the traumatic legacy of brutal French colonialism in Africa. His solos rip like lightning bolts across a storm of melody and rhythm, with Mikey Coltun’s bass roiling in ecstatic complement. The band charges through energetic and lightly psychedelic numbers (“Chismiten,” “Ya Habibti”), and find more knots to untangle in their quieter asides (“Asdikte Akal,” “Tala Tannam”). Its title track is a pure thrill, detonating as Moctar’s cohort locks into a churning groove from his sung invocation and only growing wilder from there. Reports of the death of rock have been greatly exaggerated: Afrique Victime is a uniquely vibrant and kinetic recording, one that proves that the future of rock music exists far beyond what any genre or geographic borders can define. –Allison Hussey

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Paradise of Bachelors

Mega Bog: Life, and Another

Erin Birgy, the songwriter and playful deviant behind Mega Bog, has mastered the art of hodgepodge. Her songs, particularly those on Mega Bog’s sixth LP Life, and Another, are crammed with multicolored imagery of floating dogs, beetles housed in jars, and blue-bellied lizards. Birgy sings about them in a soft-spoken mania, stumbling over tightly-packed syllables like Destroyer’s Dan Bejar leading a seance. Her arrangements are weightless, weaving lounge jazz and cosmic soft rock into an otherworldly fabric, but her approach to language is supremely odd. On the dreamy “Station to Station,” she compares the dying, dissolving self to “an artichoke being gutted around its spine.” It is one of Birgy’s greatest gifts: the ability to transform worldly materials into lush psychedelia. –Madison Bloom

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Nick Cave / Warren Ellis: Carnage

During the title track of Carnage, a strange and quiet album that Nick Cave recorded with his longtime accompanist Warren Ellis, the 64-year-old musician sits on his balcony and tries to write a song. He’s got a pencil in his hand and a Flannery O’Connor book open for inspiration as his mind drifts to a childhood memory of his uncle. Suddenly, Cave sees himself as a kid, and we see him, too. The arrangement, which began as a dreary trudge of electric guitar and synth, slowly fills with color, like a rainbow forming in a gray sky. As with the best of Cave’s recent work, it is an intimate moment presented as documentary and psychological horror, blending the boundaries between past and future, dreams and nightmares. –Sam Sodomsky