The Best Rock Albums of 2021

Though we continue to move into a world where genre is an antiquated notion, it’s always fun to focus our year-end efforts on the best each distinct subset of music had to offer. And if there was one genre that produced an embarrassment of riches in 2021, it was rock—”indie” or otherwise. Bands like TURNSTILE and The Armed made hardcore more accessible than ever. Mdou Moctar shared his Saharan shredding with the world, and Parannoul went from anonymous bedroom-rocker to critical darling. Dry Cleaning and Cheekface turned anxiety into laugh-out-loud funny guitar-rock. Some of these bands reinvented the wheel, while others paid tribute to time-honored traditions. There are debuts here, as well as impressive outings from veteran artists. Some of these albums made our list of 2021’s best, while others flew further under the radar. It all adds up to more than 24 hours of must-hear rock music, hand-picked by the Paste Music team.

Listen to Paste’s Best Rock Albums of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.

Portland, Oregon’s Alien Boy—guitarist and songwriter Sonia Weber, drummer Derek McNeil, and a rotating cast of PDX scene mainstays—make punchy West Coast guitar rock aglow with a sense of yearning that will make your heart ache, in a good way. Their debut album Don’t Know What I Am is riddled with “Dreams and Queer Feeling,” the motto the band spray-painted on a banner they hung onstage during a series of defining 2018 shows. “Dear Nora” is a passionate, overwhelmingly earnest expression of affection and gratitude: A melodic lead riff surfs waves of whammied shoegaze fuzz, only receding to make space for Weber’s lovesick vocals: “You’re everything, you’re everything,” she sings, gushing, “I adore you so, you adore me in the way I always wanted.” Alien Boy wield these emotions with an urgency that emanates through your speakers, like on opener “The Way I Feel,” when Weber sings, “The way you love me hurts too much / The way I feel / The way you make me feel, won’t come around again.” The intensity of feeling on Don’t Know What I Am would be almost too much to bear if Alien Boy weren’t so adept at shredding through the heartache. —Scott Russell

Melbourne, Australia punk quartet Amyl and The Sniffers came back with a barn burner of a sophomore album, the follow-up to their 2019 self-titled debut. Amy Taylor and company co-produced Comfort to Me with Dan Luscombe, writing their new record during Australian Bushfire season, not to mention COVID-19 quarantine. The result is ferocious, melodic punk rock that seems to push in every direction at once, but the band’s explosive energy belies a surprising degree of heart: “I’m not looking for trouble / I’m looking for love,” Taylor sings on “Security,” somehow managing to maintain a pocket of serenity in the eye of the band’s chaotic storm. “This album is just us—raw self expression, defiant energy, unapologetic vulnerability,” Taylor said in a statement. “It was written by four self-taught musicians who are all just trying to get by and have a good time.” —Scott Russell

Everything you read about The Armed’s latest album ULTRAPOP will mention the mysterious nature of the Detroit-based band’s true lineup. They’ll cite made-up names and untrustworthy interviews, falsified press releases and photos featuring models standing in for whoever’s behind such an uncommonly catchy and charismatic strain of hardcore punk. Here’s what we do know: Whoever is pulling strings and pushing boundaries for The Armed is doing a hell of a job. What’s most impressive about ULTRAPOP is not necessarily the killer riffs, the pummeling rhythms or the plentiful melodies, though all of those are consistently thrilling. What’s most impressive is the way this band brings together different, disparate styles in a way that sounds seamless and natural and new, even if others have done it before. When The Armed announced ULTRAPOP last winter, de facto leader Dan Greene was quoted as saying the album “seeks, in earnest, to create a truly new listener experience. It is an open rebellion against the culture of expectation in ‘heavy’ music. It is a joyous, genderless, post-nihilist, anti-punk, razor-focused take on creating the most intense listener experience possible.” With ULTRAPOP, they’ve done exactly that. Whoever “they” are. —Ben Salmon

Born of the same South London scene that’s produced the likes of black midi, PVA and Squid, skyrocketing septet Black Country, New Road found their band name using a random Wikipedia page generator. With singles like 2019’s “Athens, France” and “Sunglasses,” and last year’s “Science Fair,” the U.K. up-and-comers are growing and changing before our eyes. On their debut album For the first time, frontman Isaac Wood’s hypnotic speak-singing shifts subtly away from “speak” and towards “sing” so as to more effectively meld with the band’s mercurial instrumental outbursts. Their thunderous post-punk, spiked with discordant jazz and bookended by klezmer squalls, feels both explosively raw and carefully, ingeniously crafted. —Scott Russell

In the lead-up to black midi’s second album, Cavalcade, the band did indulge one indie-rock cliché: slagging off their celebrated debut and promising the new one will be different. “People seemed to really like the debut album but after a while we all became pretty bored with it,” Geordie Greep told The Quietus at the time. “So, it was like: this time let’s make something that is actually good.” Consciously or not, Greep was warning the group’s fans that Cavalcade wouldn’t feature more of the same, and it doesn’t. Where Schlagenheim felt serrated and sharp-edged and packed tight with grooves, Cavalcade feels brooding and explorative. It’s wordy and lyric-minded, with long, serpentine narratives that unfold like shape-shifting fruit roll-ups. Greep sings more than he mutters or shrieks, and sometimes he even croons, as on “Marlene Dietrich,” an uncommonly melodic nod to the 1930s screen legend outfitted with velvety strings. black midi has achieved something remarkable in building a considerable fanbase and buzz around music as staunchly anti-commercial as this. Those fans willing to wade through the band’s murkier excursions will find a brilliant second album lurking somewhere within Cavalcade. —Zach Schonfeld

Listening to Cheekface is a little like listening to a friend recite funny tweets to you while your roommate practices post-punk basslines in the other room. That’s not a complaint: This L.A. trio’s songs are sardonic and frequently quite funny, and lead singer Greg Katz, an everydude-voiced lead singer who talks more than he sings, really does have the energy of a guy reading tweets aloud. “Boyfriend with a soul patch / I know, I know, it’s serious,” he half-croons in “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Calabasas.” “I am eating like it’s Thanksgiving, but without the gratitude,” he deadpans in “Emotional Rent Control.” A generation ago, songwriters wrote lyrics that seemed primed for use in AIM away messages; Cheekface’s quips are concise enough to be tweets, with the requisite non-sequiturs and self-deprecating observations. Still, after writing that description, I recoiled in horror: Has my brain really been so warped by social media that lyrics remind me of tweets instead of vice versa? But that’s the kind of existential anxiety Cheekface could probably write a song about. And writing songs about anxiety is what this band does quite well. Their first album was titled Therapy Island and prominently namechecked Zoloft; the record charmed on the strength of a buzzy single called “Dry Heat/Nice Town” that lightly tweaked leftist protest discourse. The follow-up, Emphatically No., is even more anxious, more hooky and somehow more Cheekface. —Zach Schonfeld

Admittedly, any release with the title MAXIMUMBLASTSUPERLOUD would’ve caught my attention, but Dazy’s 2021 compilation proved to be so much more than its eye-catching name. And sure, this release has plenty of thundering girth, but the band pairs it with classic, tuneful pop, which, in my book, is one of the most lethal combinations in all of music. Virginia-based musician James Goodson is the sole mastermind behind Dazy, and this latest release collects everything the band’s put out so far—two EPs plus four singles with accompanying b-sides—along with a handful of previously unreleased songs. Recorded at home with a lone mic and amp, these songs are loaded with lo-fi rock goodness of the power pop and Britpop varieties, and some of the vocals even have an emo-adjacent charm. Their distorted guitars provide a colossal rumble throughout the whole record, and the sun-drenched melodies made it an absolute must-listen during those dying days of summer. One of my favorite moments is Goodson’s citrus-themed refrain over delectable, modulated guitar squeals on “Crowded Mind (Lemon Lime),” along with the swagger and meaty force of “See The Bottom.” Just like many authentic pizzerias forbid takeout to preserve the pizza’s integrity, you should crank this album as loud as you can or not at all. —Lizzie Manno

Deafheaven have made two albums since Sunbather: 2015’s New Bermuda and 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. Both are very good, and each one inches away from black metal and toward post-rock and shoegaze. Infinite Granite ditches the inching and dives into the deep end of Deafheaven’s softer, prettier predilections. Gone, mostly, are the blast beats and gone, mostly, are vocalist George Clarke’s howls and growls, which appear most prominently in the last three minutes of the album’s stunning final song, “Mombasa”—a classic closing number that begins with quietly intertwined acoustic and electric guitars, and evolves into a dream-pop lullaby before crescendoing into chilly calamity. “Travel now where they can’t let you down,” Clarke screams, delivering Infinite Granite’s most unintelligible lyrics. “Where you can’t fail them now.” The road to “Mombasa” is paved with eight tracks of buoyant and beautiful post-rock and shoegaze that, even with the context of their past material, paints Deafheaven in a whole new light. —Ben Salmon

British quartet Dry Cleaning extract the profound from the mundane and the meaningful from the nonsensical. On “Viking Hair” from the band’s 2019 EP Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks, frontperson Florence Shaw’s everyday sexual fantasies stood in for the arbitrary guidelines determining acceptable and shameful desires; as she surreally rattled off “traditional fish bar, chicken and ribs, bus pass” and more on “Traditional Fish” from the band’s other 2019 EP, Sweet Princess, she scorned the very idea of commerce. And she did it all in a bone-dry, comical sing-speak set to rollicking, if not straightforward, post-punk courtesy of guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton. New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning’s debut album (and first release for 4AD), is all of that and none of that. Shaw’s semi-accidental revelations about the ridiculousness of being alive when we live in a society are sharper than ever, and her voice newly takes the tone of a psychic waking up from a 70-year nap. Dowse, Maynard and Buxton have massively upped their game, too: The EPs’ post-punk foundation remains, but atop it come stomping glam riffs, dream-pop arpeggios and razor-sharp melodies that loosen Dry Cleaning’s prior tension without entirely taming the mania. —Max Freedman

The full-length debut of Toronto multi-instrumentalist duo Tom McGreevy and Evan Lewis (formerly known as Ducks Unlimited), Modern Fiction is a must-listen for fans of The Feelies, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, and everything in between. An ideally paced, 10-track, half-hour listen, the record is replete with robust jangle-pop guitars, cheery melodies and clever lyricism—all of which belie the darkness at its heart. Indeed, Ducks Ltd. spend much of their first album examining the lies we tell ourselves and the emotional corners we cut, distorting the world around us in our attempts to better deal with it. The band’s generous and accessible sound is the sugar that makes that medicine go down. —Scott Russell

Several of 2021’s most beloved and interesting albums feature a cerebral, textured chaos that sparks a wide range of emotions—including records by Spirit of the Beehive, The Armed and TURNSTILE—and Dummy’s debut Mandatory Enjoyment certainly accomplishes that same feat. Their blend of noise-pop and new age music works on multiple levels, especially because both subgenres thrive on the fascinating intermingling of electronic and organic components. But what’s arguably most satisfying about Dummy is that their thrumming instrumentals evoke crisp lines, while their free-flowing, tangential textures color outside those bounds—their songs always feel like the perfect painting. —Lizzie Manno

Post-punk lovers have a new act to follow in Fake Fruit, a Vancouver-bred, Bay Area-based quartet whose self-titled debut is out now on Rocks In Your Head Records. The band cite Pink Flag-era Wire, Pylon and Mazzy Star as influences, and Fake Fruit bears that synthesis out: You’ll find the first two acts’ versatile, hard-edged, bright- and fast-burning guitar rock (“Old Skin,” “Yolk”), as well as the last one’s engrossing quiet-loud dynamics (“Stroke My Ego”). But that specific stylistic fusion is only a jumping-off point: “Keep You” finds singer and guitarist Hannah D’Amato’s melodic vocals overlaying hypnotic shoegaze guitars (courtesy of Alex Post on lead) and a clattering low end (Martin Miller on bass, Miles MacDiarmid on drums), while album closer “Milkman” finds D’Amato sharing vocal duties over deft guitar harmonics and a motorik backbeat. And an X factor in all this is Fake Fruit’s mordant lyricism: “My dog speaks more than you did tonight,” D’Amato sneers on “Keep You,” a laugh line on an album that shows serious potential. —Scott Russell

On both their records to date—2018’s Springtime and Blind and this year’s Between the Richness—Boston rockers Fiddlehead have delivered a potent combination of anthemic melody, hard-rock muscle and poignant lyricism; the band, featuring members of Have Heart, Basement and others, “blend post-hardcore punch with emo’s openhearted catharsis,” as we previously wrote in praise of standout single “Million Times.” Between the Richness packs hard-won wisdom—vocalist Pat Flynn got married, had a son and marked the 10-year anniversary of his father’s death, all between the band’s two albums—into 25 minutes of explosive, deeply personal rock ‘n’ roll that manages to look back on life’s peaks and valleys without ever taking its foot off the gas. —Scott Russell

Chicago quartet Floatie make brain-wrinkling rock that wouldn’t be possible without their close interconnection. Though Sam Bern, Luc Schutz, Joe Olson and Will Wisniewski have only just released their debut album on Exploding in Sound, Voyage Out is the product of a creative relationship that dates back nearly a decade, lending the band’s introductory effort a hard-won unity of vision you rarely see on a debut album, with Floatie writing and performing as one. There’s math-rock precision aplenty here—like on the arpeggiated riffage of “In the Night,” the elusive time signatures of “Lookfar,” or the title track’s dueling guitars—but where that kind of calculated instrumentation can sometimes feel sterile and joyless, Floatie’s is rich in emotional texture, specifically a dream-pop softness that provides a critical counterbalance to their meticulous constructions. Lead single “Catch a Good Worm” finds both these elements colliding to sublime effect, with pinpoint shifts between math chug and dreamy sludge as Bern imagines “A pretty worm, alive inside / Another name, another try.” —Scott Russell

Geese: Projector

Teenaged Brooklyn rockers Geese grabbed our attention with their stellar first single over the summer and, with the release of their much-anticipated debut album Projector, show zero signs of letting it go. The quintet’s sound fits most comfortably in the post-punk bucket, but placing any one descriptor on it is a mistake—Geese’s raison d’être is stylistic multiplicity, and their songs never occupy a single space for long, shifting fluidly between angular precision and psychedelic sprawl, all while remaining perpetually danceable and energetic. Frontman Cameron Winter’s lyrics inhabit the perspectives of various shadowy characters, spinning tales of anxiety and annihilation that imbue the band’s mercurial instrumentation with a gripping darkness. All told, Projector is an exhilarating first statement from a preternaturally talented band, bottled rock lightning with roots in decades of compelling musical influence. —Scott Russell

Gojira have slowly strayed from their death-metal roots, but on their latest effort Fortitude, the French metal pioneers embrace a more mainstream approach to their enchanting songwriting. There is no shortage of chugging guitars and frontman Joe Duplantier’s war cries, but the way that the band continues to innovate with their slow-rising melodies and silky echoes is exciting and mesmerizing. The subtle nods to blues-rock, as well as Indigenous and African drumming, make Fortitude a necessary protest album. —Jade Gomez

There’s a distinctive charm to bands like Brooklyn quintet Gustaf, who craft a slickly stylish, fully realized rock sound while flatly rejecting pretension and self-seriousness. Like DEVO or Talking Heads before them, Gustaf deal in clever, irresistibly upbeat art-rock that’s as playful as it is thoughtful, with an LCD Soundsystem-esque dance-punk edge to keep the energy and intrigue up. Tine Hill (bass), Vram Kherlopian (guitar), Melissa Lucciola (drums), Tarra Thiessen (vocals, percussion) and Lydia Gammill (lead vocals) recorded their forthcoming debut album with Carlos Hernandez (Ava Luna, Sneaks, Mr. Twin Sister) at Brooklyn’s Honey Jar Studio, with co-production from Gammill and Hernandez, and its singles made Gustaf a fixture on Paste’s top track roundups this summer. Their potential is plain to hear, particularly in full-length form. —Scott Russell

Palm Coast quartet Home Is Where make an indelible first impression with I Became Birds, a debut release that blurs the bounds of not only the album form, but also of emo as a genre: Its six tracks and 20-ish minutes are packed with surprising, gratifying moments that incorporate both hard rock and Americana, from the harmonica bridge on “Long Distance Conjoined Twins” to the delightful refrain of “I wanna pet every puppy I see” giving way to crashing screamo on “Sewn Together from the Membrane of the Great Sea Cucumber.” The record’s peak is its de facto title track, “Assisted Harakiri,” on which vocalist Brandon MacDonald’s explosively passionate delivery imbues both simple suburban imagery and deep internal struggles with the same emotional potency: “Moths confuse / porch lights for the moon / Over and over / Oh, the treachery / of anatomy.” Poetic and powerful in equal measure, I Became Birds punches far beyond its weight, placing Home Is Where at the forefront of the Sunshine State’s suddenly buzzing emo scene. —Scott Russell

Iceage approach each new sonic evolution with relentlessness and bloodshot eyes—the same kind of painstaking attention to detail that turns their lyrics into immersive worlds unto themselves. And funnily enough, Iceage are pretty great at churning out songs about cold-blooded relentlessness, too. You can feel the weight of this album the moment it begins—the fierce, off-kilter rumble that opens “Shelter Song’’ is nothing if not goosebump-inducing. Part ferocious guitar jangle, part foggy, solemn bustle recalling the lead-up to battle, this opening sequence is a sign of the multi-dimensional sounds to come. It’s almost foolishly over the top. It’s painfully poignant. It’s delightfully disheveled. It’s irresistible in its mystical doom. And we’d expect nothing less from Iceage. —Lizzie Manno

it’s impossible to consider the magnitude of CRAWLER accurately without absolutely crushing on its first single, “The Beachland Ballroom.” The song, titled after the historic venue on the east side of Cleveland, is the zenith of the record—a vulnerable work of art where Joe Talbot transcribes either an anxiety attack or an explosive performance, depending on what perspective you bring to it. Talbot sings, “They could hear me scream for miles / The silence ringing for days,” atop a lingering one-note piano. IDLES could’ve played it safe and delivered another album about the urgent socio-political currents and mental health issues surrounding them. Instead, they’ve never delved so deeply inwards. CRAWLER is a project about flaws, healing and reclamation. It’s a remarkable, haunted and resonant touchstone for rock and roll, a record unafraid of its own emotions and openness—full of stories worth returning to and untangling a hundred times over. —Matt Mitchell

As illuminati hotties, Sarah Tudzin seems relentlessly committed to perfecting the subgenre she coined, “tenderpunk,” and creating an album worth waiting for. After the success of their debut, Kiss Yr Frenemies, she and her band were tediously crafting their follow-up until relations with their label crumbled. illuminati hotties found themselves in a contract to release an album without the infrastructure they desired and in a very punk-like fashion, they released the surprise-streaming Free I.H.: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For. Tudzin clearly knows what she wants, and with each album, illuminati hotties keep getting closer to their end goal. There are no brakes on Let Me Do One More—rather, it is more like a sprightly roller coaster, with mellow gaps in between punchy electronic tracks creating arcs bound to give out an exhilarating sort of whiplash. Fury meets romantic longing, sneering meets sincere whispers, and calmer sounds meet the abrasion of others. And while that sounds like a large feat, to mingle these opposites, illuminati hotties bounce between them with great precision. —Ana Cubas

Asheville, North Carolina’s Indigo De Souza clears the sophomore slump by leaps and bounds on Any Shape You Take, the follow-up to her 2018 self-released debut, I Love My Mom, and her first LP for Saddle Creek. Any Shape You Take, a fitting title for the multitudes that De Souza and her new songs contain, is about the difficulties and joys of pushing through the growing pains of change: “I’ll be here to love you / No matter what shape you might take,” De Souza sings on “Way Out,” an all-encompassing declaration of unconditional love. De Souza and her co-producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, Waxahatchee), who recorded Any Shape You Take at Sylvan Esso’s Chapel Hill studio, couch the album’s confessionals in vivid, dynamic sonic rollercoaster rides, from the vocoderized synth-pop of opener “17” and the palm-muted harmonics on “Darker Than Death” to the peaks and valleys of “Late Night Crawlers” and the explosive emotions of the closing cut, “Kill Me.” De Souza’s singular voice is the invaluable core running through it all: She can do pure pop on “Die/Cry,” get downright operatic on “Bad Dream” and slip into an effortless falsetto on “Pretty Pictures,” taking any shape she likes. —Scott Russell

Digging into personal history is not a new undertaking for Lucy Dacus. Historian, Dacus’ 2018 album (as well as Paste’s pick for the best of that year) and the follow-up to her 2016 debut No Burden, followed the end of a five-year relationship and the death of Dacus’ grandmother. She did a magnificent job throughout the album knitting together her own sorrows and joy with our collective strife in 2018. It’s clear on her third LP, Home Video, that the Virginia-born singer/songwriter wasn’t quite finished exploring her past and how it connects to the present. Throughout Home Video, Dacus revisits key scenes from and offers reflections on her childhood in Richmond, with the unexplainable perspective of not only someone who lived that childhood, but also—somehow—someone who witnessed it. First and foremost, Dacus is a storyteller. Home Video, recorded at Trace Horse Studio in Nashville, is just what you’d expect from such a talent. Here, her wise brand of rock music blooms into something even more palpable, relatable and beautifully messy. —Ellen Johnson

It’s best to ignore the fact that Matador Records billed Afrique Victime as a cross between Van Halen, Black Flag and Black Uhuru. Mdou Moctar may be a Billy Gibbons fan, but those descriptors sell him short—not because it wouldn’t be cool as hell to hear a Saharan shredder type emerge from the Sahel setting his fretboard on fire, but because Moctar isn’t that player. As Afrique Victime makes abundantly clear, the real selling point here is how delightfully inviting and accessible he tends to be. Yes, there are blazing solos and squalls of feedback, such as on the extended lead section of the title track. Still, for all his chops, Moctar has a rare gift for fluidity, as he and rhythm/acoustic guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane meld assouf, rock, psych and jazz elements into a single stream under their fingertips. Moctar and the rest of the band—Madassane, drummer Souleymane Ibrahim and Brooklyn-based producer/bassist Michael Coltun, who would routinely go through a grueling 48-hour journey just to rehearse with the others—vary their approach from song to song with such impeccable grace that Afrique Victime never settles into one gear. Nevertheless, as a complete work, the album goes down in a single, 40-minute gulp as easily as a glass of cool (if spicy) iced tea that leaves you tingling with refreshment and leaves myriad flavors on the tongue long after the fact. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

If you trapped an early-days Franz Ferdinand in a basement and fed them nothing but bad news and cigarettes, they’d eventually write and record something like NON-FICTION, the compelling debut album from Canadian quintet N0V3L. (They recorded it in a Vancouver tear-down that’s since been demolished, so perhaps that analogy is closer to the mark than one would think.) Dark and nervy, the record’s switchblade-sharp guitars and seasick rhythms somehow manage not to overwhelm, but rather to entrance and invigorate, with help from producer Bryce Cloghesy (Military Genius, Crack Cloud). Despite all that’s weighing on NOV3L’s minds—late capitalism, the opioid crisis, mental illness, time’s inexorable passage, you name it—they’re incredibly light on their feet, simulating danceable whimsy via penetrating riffs, hazy horns and Jon Varley’s nonchalantly blunt vocals. Impending doom has seldom felt so funky. —Scott Russell

You may or may not have read some of the buzz around an enigmatic emo-shoegaze artist from Seoul who records under the name Parannoul. He released a tape earlier this year called To See the Next Part of the Dream via Michigan-based label Longinus Recordings, which sold out with impressive speed and also garnered critical acclaim. The record’s starry-eyed, densely packed soundscapes immediately struck a chord—songs bursting with this much rawness and life don’t come around too often. —Lizzie Manno

The past few years have been full of reasons to fall apart, and Bay Area rockers Pardoner very nearly went that way. Max Freeland (vocals, guitar), Trey Flanigan (vocals, guitar) and River van den Berghe (drums) bonded over Yo La Tengo and Polvo in the San Francisco State University dorms, formed Pardoner, and released a pair of warm and fuzzy guitar-rock records. But when Freeland relocated to Vancouver, it appeared the band was also on its way out. Fortunately for us, Pardoner wobbled, but didn’t fall, adding an old friend in Colin Burris (bass), and reuniting in San Francisco to record Came Down Different, their breakout third album and Bar/None Records debut, in a two-day spree with veteran hardcore producer Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Jeff Rosenstock). Opener “Donna Said” melds rock of the noise and jangle varieties while documenting the draining demands of the music-industry rat race (“When you got feelings and guitar / You wanna trade it for cash”), while “Spike” moves a mile a minute to reflect its anti-exploitative sentiments (“Step up on some grapes / They want wine / They want twice the results / In half of the time”). These are songs about being cash-strapped, anonymous and squeezed dry by society, but somehow having the last laugh all the same. “I’ve been destroyed by life / and I feel fucking good,” Freeland sings on “Broadway,” and you believe him on both counts. Throughout Came Down Different, Pardoner deliver barbed guitar rock that’s apocalyptic, yet nonchalant, like lighting a joint with a burning world. —Scott Russell

Mia Berrin of Pom Pom Squad has long been an avid explorer of pop culture, though as a person of color and a queer woman, neither facets of her identity have historically been given much attention in media. She dealt with this lack of representation resourcefully, finding snippets that resonated with her. She explains in a press release, “I absorbed everything I could and tried to make a collage that could incorporate every piece of me.” Now, with bandmates Shelby Keller (drums), Mari Alé Figeman (bass) and Alex Mercuri (guitar), Berrin is ensuring that present and future generations won’t have to live on meager scraps. Death of a Cheerleader synthesizes Berrin’s various influences—aesthetic, musical, cinematic—but ends up as a creature entirely its own, telling Berrin’s story in a way that’s sure to hit home with many who struggle to see themselves in whitewashed Hollywood releases. The album is well-realized conceptually and brilliantly, viscerally executed. —Clare Martin

The act of leaving one’s self behind to inhabit a fictional character is key to Body Jumper, Bay Area four-piece (and Paste’s July Best of What’s Next pick) Provoker’s debut album. Lyricist and vocalist Christian Petty told Paste he finds “songwriting so much easier” when he can seek emotional truths through the eyes of fictional characters—he estimates he does so on about half of Body Jumper’s 13 tracks—but as founder Jonathon Lopez points out, “with any kind of writing, a portion of the person writing it comes out anyway, little parts. So in a way it is relevant to what’s happening within our lives.” That frequently manifests as what percussionist Kristian Moreno calls “a common emotion in goth music […] ethereal love mourn,” with Provoker’s characters animated by powerful feelings for another, but dreading the dangling axe of rejection—Petty’s smoky R&B vocals, set to the band’s doomy, yet propulsive instrumentals—menacing and danceable, part post-punk, part R&B and part synth-pop—perfectly reflect this in-between state of impossible passion and inevitable pain. —Scott Russell

Although the band’s 2019 debut album, Somewhere City, is great in its own right, GAMI GANG captures Origami Angel at their apotheosis. This is a double album that showcases, in the parlance of Pokémon, the band’s evolution. The lyrics aren’t profoundly deep, but thats doesn’t mean GAMI GANG itself doesn’t speak to something grander than what it initially insinuates. After all of the strife that’s occurred over the past couple of years, Origami Angel have provided us with something of a salve. As Ryland Heagy and Pat Doherty sing in their shout-along gang vocals on one of the album’s standout tracks, “We’ll be so caught in the moment.” GAMI GANG catches them in their moment. —Grant Sharples

After Shame signed with Dead Oceans and released their debut album Songs of Praise in 2018, they toured all over the world to critical acclaim. Their forceful, jocular post-punk songs, barked by often-shirtless frontman Charlie Steen and taking cues from Mark E. Smith, were all the more satisfying in their live form. Mosh pits opened up, bassist Josh Finerty burst into tumbling front flips and Steen climbed over crowds, who held up his chunky boots as he stood above them, often flinging water like an eccentric baptism. But all this energy poured into an insane volume of tour dates and festivals eventually took a toll on them, lending few opportunities to take stock of their impressive run. As they began work on their follow-up album, there was a lot of contemplation to be done. Their brand new full-length Drunk Tank Pink asks the same burning questions that arise after a messy night out—not the immediate ones in the morning, like “Where’s my credit card?” or “Who did I make out with last night? They pose the ones that make you think deeper, long after your hangover has subsided: “Am I addicted to numbing my pain?” “Am I moving too fast?” “Is this where I want to be at this point in my life?” As they seek answers, they sound darker and more agitated. There’s a palpable restlessness and lack of content—the exact sort of panic that sets in when you’re too young to be freaking out about how you’re going to cope with each new day. Their rhythms are sharper, their guitars are more imaginative, and they’re okay with taking their foot off the gas every once in a while. —Lizzie Manno

“Referring to the process as the deepest level of catharsis and therapy I have ever experienced would be a huge understatement,” Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan said of making her new album. That healing comes packaged in a blend of blistering rock and pensive singer/songwriter product that isn’t too far off from what we first heard of Jordan on Lush and even her Habit EP from 2016. The main difference on Valentine is Jordan’s newfound vocal confidence: She has perfected her singing voice to match her musical maturity, making Valentine more like Lush’s cool, assured older sister than simply a sequel. Undoubtedly one of the best songs of the year, the triumphant title/opening track, also the album’s lead single, finds Jordan beyond frustration while yearning for the ex who dumped her, or maybe just someone out of reach. The song’s grand scale works because it’s so easy to believe Jordan is as desperate as she sounds. Breakups aren’t just sad—they’re rage-inducing. “So why’d you wanna erase me?” she hollers through the tears, before adding, “You won’t believe what just two months do / I’m older now, believe me / I adore you.” —Ellen Johnson

Shapeshifting. If there’s one descriptor for Philadelphia rockers Spirit of the Beehive, that’s it, so we figured we’d get it out of the way early. Transformation surrounds their fourth album and Saddle Creek debut ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, affecting the band itself—founding members Zack Schwartz and Rivka Ravede are now joined by Corey Wichlin—as well as their recording process and, of course, the music itself. While the band recorded their breakout 2018 album Hypnic Jerks in only a week, they took four months for ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, self-recording and producing their most adventurous album yet. Just take “I SUCK THE DEVIL’S COCK,” the record’s near-seven-minute third single, which they describe as “our take on ‘a day in the life’”: The song begins as glitchy, drum machine-spiked jangle-psych, but quickly devolves into borderline ambient noise, eventually reconstituting itself as dreamy indie-pop with the oddest refracted textures. It, like all of ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH, is thrillingly unpredictable from moment to moment, and a mind-expanding exploration of the innumerable forms rock music can take. —Scott Russell

Spirits Having Fun: Two

Spirits Having Fun make spindly, unpredictable music that dwells in the gray area between post-punk, jazz and math rock. With members based in both Chicago and New York City, distance-born collaboration shapes the band’s work. However, where some artists might view thousands of miles of separation as a creative challenge, Spirits Having Fun embrace it, and they thrive. Distinct elements of both Midwest indie and Northeastern experimentation seep through on the band’s sophomore album, Two. You can hear echoes of Windy City acts like Moontype and Floatie in its spindly intricacy, but it simultaneously brings to mind the freewheeling, swirling work of Big Apple stalwarts like Standing On The Corner and Onyx Collective. Jumbling a myriad of styles and feels throughout the record’s 42-minute runtime, Two can be a hectic affair, like watching sped-up footage of a major thoroughfare during rush hour. However, it’s this penchant for heady intensity that keeps the album gripping and singular. —Ted Davis

Toward the end of Squid’s debut album Bright Green Field comes a brief moment of liberation. “Well, I’ve always been told what to do,” the narrator of “Peel St.” mumbles, “but now, I’m free / There’s no warden following me.” Whether the prison from which this character has been released is literal or one of the mind is left for the listener to decide, and most of the details underpinning Bright Green Field’s paranoid, dystopian universe are similarly vague. More immediately apparent is Squid’s utter disregard for rock convention—where drummer-vocalist Ollie Judge’s words leave gaps in his Orwellian brutalism, his chainsaw of a shout-speak and his band’s squawking guitars fill in the blanks. Though Bright Green Field is easily Squid’s most musically varied and ambitious work yet, the British quintet—whose contemporaries include black midi and Black Country, New Road—remains thematically tethered to the pervasive anxiety and fear that have defined them from their 2019 breakout single “Houseplants” through last year’s Sludge / Broadcaster 10”, their debut for storied electronic and experimental label Warp. If anything, Bright Green Field—co-written by the entire group and produced by Speedy Wunderground mastermind Dan Carey—raises the band’s longtime stakes. Where “The Cleaner,” the highlight from 2019’s Town Centre EP, hinted at simultaneously more abrasive and hooky grooves to come, Bright Green Field delivers on that promise without diminishing Squid’s madness. —Max Freedman

The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die have a flair for the dramatic, if their name is anything to go off. Noted as one of the main bands that brought emo into the spotlight again (and for all the purists out there, yes, we mean ’90s emo and not early-’00s pop-punk/emo), TWIABP capitalize on the emotions present in the pandemic in releasing Illusory Walls. As they settle into their new lineup as a five-piece, their chemistry shines. Fuzzy guitars explode into ear-shattering feedback that cradles gorgeous vocal melodies. TWIABP craft a brilliant, immersive and surreal world on Illusory Walls, juxtaposing inevitable doom with sweet optimism. —Jade Gomez

Amid the seriousness of her 2017 album Three Futures—it was primarily about reckoning with religious trauma, after all—TORRES’ Mackenzie Scott predicts, in the glow of disjointed synth-pop, “There must be a greener stretch ahead.” And after what feels like a lifetime, it sounds like the Georgia-born, Brooklyn-based artist is finally basking on those green lawns she sketched out nearly four messy years ago. The music of TORRES has never been desolate, but there’s a clear change in tone on Scott’s fifth record under the moniker. Scott’s music has shifted from experimental rock to progressive pop and back again, and her career has been exciting to witness, but there was always the sense she was capable of something more energized, more her. In her latest release, Thirstier, we finally have the complete picture, and it’s as lively a rock album as you’ll hear this year. —Ellen Johnson

One of the most conspicuous musical trends of 2021 has been quiet introspection. Across genres, artists have folded inward. Clairo relinquished the indie-pop of her 2019 debut in lieu of a softer style that evokes ‘70s singer/songwriters like Stevie Nicks. Vince Staples deserted his high-energy delivery (and producer Kenny Beats abandoned his frantic arrangements) for something more lo-fi and muted. Though records such as these are captivating in their own rights, it’s also interesting to hear artists go against that current. That’s exactly what the Baltimore-based hardcore band TURNSTILE have done on their latest album, GLOW ON. With production from Mike Elizondo (now Grammy-nominated for his work) and co-production from TURNSTILE’s vocalist Brendan Yates, GLOW ON is the group’s most fully realized work yet. They use the full-throttle blueprint of their sterling sophomore album, 2018’s Time & Space, and expand upon it. GLOW ON puts TURNSTILE’s sheer amount of ambition on display, and they deliver on that ambition with a record that widens their scope. Throughout its 15 tracks, their newly expanded sound never falters, and it sees them toying with fresh effects and textures while still maintaining their forceful approach. At the same time, TURNSTILE move forward without losing sight of what made them so intriguing to begin with. GLOW ON isn’t just one of the best hardcore albums of the year; it’s one of the best albums of the year in general. —Grant Sharples

On I Don’t Live Here Anymore, The War on Drugs had a decision to make at the metaphorical fork in the road: Would they continue down the path of being a successful—albeit predictable—guitar band, or take a risk and produce work outside of their wheelhouse? Somehow, the answer turned out to be both. Like Wagonwheel Blues before it, the bones of I Don’t Live Here Anymore are strong and sturdy, but its execution is more nuanced, more daring, more personal. Adam Granduciel has always sung as if his lips were pressed to someone’s ear and that intimacy remains intact, particularly in the album’s most vulnerable moments. The tenderness on opener and lead single “Living Proof” is wrapped in lush piano chords and simple lyricism about feeling foreign to a place you once called home. But the most thrilling parts of the LP are in the center, the space where The War on Drugs feel free enough to deviate from the expectations that made them mainstream darlings. Over the past 13 years—and with each project—The War on Drugs have continuously grown into fuller and more realized versions of themselves. I Don’t Live Here Anymore is fitting for their newest form: revered musicians with over a decade of quality music under their belts who never lost sight of the prize. —Candace McDuffie

Famed novelist and poet Richard Brautigan was best known for his blurry, fragmented writing style. The scenes he describes are ephemeral—almost painfully so—but they’re so specific and meaningful that they resonate long after your eyes leave the page. Karly Hartzman, vocalist and lyricist of Asheville five-piece Wednesday, writes in a similar manner. Like Brautigan, she captures the pain and surreal nature of reality, and she writes with a rapidly shifting focus and no sense of chronology, imprinting a sense of longing on their songs. Unsurprisingly, Hartzman cites Brautigan as an influence on the band’s new album, Twin Plagues. Brautigan’s work predates shoegaze, but Wednesday’s distorted, wailing guitars pair perfectly with this style of writing, which is just as blustery and powerful as their triple guitar barrage. Wednesday aren’t a straightforward shoegaze band by any means—they also fold in elements of slacker rock and country—but they harness a considerable amount of force from their rugged guitar roars and quiet-loud dynamic. Simply put, Twin Plagues is one of the best and most consistent records you’ll hear this year. It’s a stunning body of work for many reasons—the way it grapples with trauma, the way it captures suburban melancholia, the way each hook somehow sounds better than the next, the way they manage to spark something inside the listener with such specific lyrics—but more broadly, it’s because every song feels like a cathartic explosion. —Lizzie Manno

Listen to Paste’s Best Rock Albums of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.