2021 was a year to savor for music fans like me, who saw live shows return following a destructive pandemic. But out of destruction comes creation, and we saw a wave of great new records this year — many of which pushed the envelope of the genres of rock, punk, hardcore, hip-hop, and more.
From the sudden emergence of megastar Olivia Rodrigo to the surge of heavy acts like Turnstile, Spiritbox, and SeeYouSpaceCowboy, the music scene is in a healthier place than I expected entering a year of unknowns. Alternative music is thriving in its genre-fluid boxes, reminding us that there are indeed artists looking to move forward rather than living in the glory of what once was.
Here are my 40 favorite records from 2021, featuring staple bands that I’ve loved for a long time, some of my favorite contemporary acts, and a few that came out of nowhere (yes, I’m talking about Converge and Chelsea Wolfe) to complete my rotation this year.
40. One Step Closer – This Place You Know
No, One Step Closer does not sound like Linkin Park. But in the end, it doesn’t even matter, because the group’s Run for Cover Records debut is one of the best melodic hardcore albums of 2021 – if not the best. With sonic similarities to Title Fight, This Place You Know leans heavily not only on the act’s hardcore roots but also their intricately layered punk/emo edge.
39. Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Over his past three records, Tyler, the Creator has matured into his best artistic self, and his newest effort is the next in this installment of thoughtful hip-hop. Call Me If You Get Lost is a smooth culmination of his progress, a wide-ranging musical endeavor that ranges from the‘90s-style R&B of “Wusyaname” to the dynamic stadium rap of “Juggernaut.”
38. Quicksand – Distant Populations
When Quicksand returned in 2017 after a 20-plus year absence with Interiors, it was unclear whether this was a one-off reunion or if the band was back for good. But Distant Populations answers that question with a thicker, grungier version of its former self. Walter Schreifels sounds as good as ever in his 50s, and Quicksand is at the top of its game 30+ years in.
37. Adjy – The Idyll Opus (I-VI)
A glorious blend of emo, post-rock, indie rock, indie folk, and any other alternative subgenre you can think of, Adjy’s debut album was more than just a bombastic debut. The Idyll Opus (I-VI) is an ambitious burst onto the scene, and its atmosphere is as pleasant as its soundalikes. Imagine Moving Mountains with banjos, or Pinegrove meets This Will Destroy You.
36. Big Red Machine – How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?
I’m a sucker for anything Justin Vernon is involved in: Bon Iver, Volcano Choir, his solo work, and – most recently – his collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dessner, Big Red Machine. The duo ups the ante on their sophomore release, How Long You Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, a record influenced by The Last Waltz and oozing with interesting guest spots.
35. Needtobreathe – Into the Mystery
Needtobreathe was in a bit of a musical lull until Out of Body brought the band a newfound folk-rock energy. While they were unable to tour the new tunes until this fall, they spent their time continuing to catch the same lightning in a bottle, releasing another LP in Into the Mystery in 2021. Does it hold a candle to its predecessor? For the most part, yes.
34. SeeYouSpaceCowboy – The Romance of Affliction
Don’t call them screamo: SeeYouSpaceCowboy is the frontrunner of modern sasscore, and The Romance of Affliction is the strongest and densest work they’ve released yet. They build on their signature hardcore sound with better songwriting and more clean singing, complementing vocalist Connie Sgarbossa’s Jekyll and Hyde approach – from ferocious to flamboyant.
33. Guccihighwaters – Joke’s on You
Epitaph Records jumped on the emo rap train last year with its signing of several rising artists, including Guccihighwaters. The most melodic and sensitive of the bunch, Gucci makes it clear on his first full-length, Joke’s on You, that the themes of breakups (“Hold Somebody”), adolescence (“Highschool”), and mental health (“Rock Bottom”) sound great with piano and 808s.
32. Bruit – The Machine Is Burning and Now Everyone Knows It Could Happen Again
The most unique record on this list comes from a French post-rock/ambient group called Bruit. Yes, their name translates to “noise,” but that classification would be a disservice to the amalgamation of strings, guitars, and keys present on this instrumental LP. Is Bruit the next Godspeed You! Black Emperor? The title track’s crescendo suggests such potential.
31. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Michelle Zauner has come a long way since her time in Little Big League. On her first solo release as Japanese Breakfast, she proved she could stand on her own two feet. On the follow-up, Jubilee, she breaks out as a true popstar. With the sweet hooks of “Be Sweet” and “Savage Good Boy,” it’s only a matter of time before she starts selling out clubs.
30. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
Deafheaven underwent a metamorphosis for their newest record, Infinite Granite. Gone are most elements of black metal, and in their place are sweeping measures of post-rock and shoegaze. Eight years after the metal masterpiece that was Sunbather, the outfit is not chasing the past at all. Instead, their forward movement has resulted in a divisive yet ultimately smooth listen.
29. Beartooth – Below
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Beartooth knows this all too well with their metalcore formula. On their fourth LP, Below, they follow the same blueprint but with an added dose of fury and aggression, and Caleb Shomo is as charged as ever. “Devastation” is the supreme mosh anthem, “The Past Is Dead“ is the massive sing-along, and “Skin” is the radio-ready bop.
28. Ice Nine Kills – The Silver Scream 2: Welcome to Horrorwood
Metalcore never sounded so scary on Ice Nine Kills’ The Silver Scream – and now it has a sequel. The Silver Scream 2: Welcome to Horrorwood brings more incendiary songs around horror classics, including Psycho (“The Shower Scene”) and American Psycho (“Hip to Be Scared”) What’s more fun than that? Oh, maybe Jacoby Shaddix getting murdered with an axe.
27. Squid – Bright Green Field
Squid brought out my inner Talking Heads fanboy on Bright Green Field, with vocalist Ollie Judge doing his best David Byrne impression throughout the Brits’ first full-length. But they take things up a notch with some extra punk bite and brass added to the mix. “G.S.K.” is a chaotic post-punk romp, and it’s also the album’s standout and one of 2021’s most brilliant songs.
26. Olivia Rodrigo – Sour
Call her the next big thing all you want, but Olivia Rodrigo has arrived. Sour is not only her most honest diary entry (“I’m so sick of 17,” she whines on “Brutal”), it’s also her roadmap to superstardom. She’s broken through to practically every audience, and it’s no wonder how: Her songs cross all sorts of genre lines, and it helps to have hits as catchy as “Good 4 U.”
25. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee at State’s End!
It’s tough to say whether G_d’s Pee at State’s End is Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s most challenging record. After all, you have to have patience to endure the 20-minute long tracks consistent across their discography. But the band’s seventh record is as noisy a trip through post-rock and drone compositions as ever – complete with fascinating sound recordings.
24. Save Face – Another Kill for the Highlight Reel
Do you think Tyler Povanda’s father took him to the city to see the marching band? Because it definitely sounds like it on Save Face’s sophomore disc, Another Kill for the Highlight Reel. There’s big My Chemical Romance energy on “Bury Me (Tonight!)” and “Sharpen Your Teeth.” Apparently New Jersey is a hub for gory emo goodness, as this LP is another worthy entry.
23. Whitechapel – Kin
Everybody loves a good redemption story. Whitechapel rose through the ranks of the deathcore scene before going stagnant in the mid-2010s. They returned to form on The Valley, and Kin is an even more enticing follow-up that doubles down on the group’s focus on melody and space (plus vocalist Phil Bozeman’s love for Tool, if that wasn’t obvious on “Lost Boy”).
22. Manchester Orchestra – The Million Masks of God
Manchester Orchestra can do no wrong, and they’ve proved it across their discography. The Million Masks of God is the newest venture, and it’s a noble successor to A Black Mile to the Surface in every way – from Andy Hull’s layered vocals to the atmospheric indie rock instrumentation. The narrative takes it from there, only furthering the experience.
21. Idles – Crawler
It hurts my heart to see Idles quickly bury Ultra Mono and move on, but I get it: They’re different people now than they were before the pandemic. But as they acknowledge, that record led them to Crawler, the next evolution in their eclectic post-punk venture. But even as their sound grows, they stay grounded – “The Beachland Ballroom” calls back to the first venue they played.
20. Fog Lake – Tragedy Reel
If you’re one of the types to search “lo-fi beats for studying” on YouTube, then Fog Lake is the perfect artist for you. Aaron Powell does self-produced bedroom pop better than practically anyone, and Tragedy Reel is the most complete collection of songs he’s created yet. “Dakota” and “Jitterbug” remind me of lonely winter days when you can’t help but reminisce.
19. Poppy – Flux
The queen of genre-bending is back. While I Disagree is Poppy’s most fun album, Flux is her best album. Less reliant on the pop-metal fusion that made her predecessor a roller coaster ride, this record harkens back to her ‘90s grunge and rock influences. “Flux” and “Her” touch on Marilyn Manson, while “So Mean” hints at a pop-rock side tailor-made for her pretty voice.
18. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Illusory Walls
The band that defined the emo genre throughout the 2010s, The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die does it again with Illusory Walls. It’s an LP that sounds like an emo band playing progressive rock, and it’s as adventurous and experimental as it is sentimental and climactic. As always, it’s nice to hear David Bello and Katie Dvorak trading vocals.
17. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue
Eternal Blue has been a long time coming for Spiritbox, and it finally arrived in September. But the wait was worth it, as it’s one of the most thrilling debuts we’ve seen in the metal scene in years. But don’t be fooled: Courtney LaPlante and Mike Stringer are no strangers to heavy music, and they bring their A game with plenty of progressive riffs and vocal prowess.
16. Wage War – Manic
After working their way up through the metalcore ranks, Wage War put out quite a dud with 2019’s buttrock-centric Pressure. But they’ve redeemed themselves with Manic, which merges the fierce technicality of Deadweight with the sing-song accessibility of Pressure. “High Horse” and “Death Roll” are the heavy highlights, and the band even go trap-metal on “Manic.”
15. Converge & Chelsea Wolfe – Bloodmoon: I
Julie Christmas teamed up with Cult of Luna in 2015. Emma Ruth Rundle teamed up with Thou last year. Now, the next intriguing collaboration between a folk singer and metal band is Chelsea Wolfe and Converge, who made the full-length Bloodmoon: I. But this is more than just a sonic fusion, with sludgy, expansive metal songs and the creative help of Cave In’s Steve Brodsky.
14. Lil Lotus – Error Boy
Over the past two years, the emo rap boom transformed into a full-fledged pop-punk revival, and Lil Lotus took a hint. The scene-kid-turned-Soundcloud-rapper plays to early 2000s nostalgia with Error Boy. “Think of Me Tonight” wouldn’t sound out of place on Take This to Your Grave, and Lotus also shows pop potential with Chrissy Costanza on “Romantic Disaster.”
13. Thrice – Horizons / East
For a second, I was worried Thrice was going to devolve into a generic alternative rock band. But this is Thrice we’re talking about, after all, and Dustin Kensure and company are always finding their footing. Horizons/East is the most captivating of the three albums they’ve released since their comeback, featuring elements of jazz, prog, and even their hardcore roots.
12. Foxing – Draw Down the Moon
Go figure that Foxing’s most pop-oriented release also is their most Radiohead equivalent. But that’s exactly what the Draw Down the Moon gives us. The band has pushed their emo identity to its limits since 2018’s Nearer My God, and the follow-up is as mainstream-ready as they come. It helps that “Go Down Together” and the title track present some of their best hooks yet.
11. Lucy Dacus – Home Video
Lucy Dacus always seemed to be the least appreciated of the three members of Boygenius – not exactly a fault when held up against Phoebe Bridgers or Julien Baker. But hopefully Home Video will give her the recognition she deserves, as it’s another excellent entry in the modern indie rock canon. Her personal storytelling is perfectly complemented by hints of folk and lo-fi.
10. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
If you’re Julien Baker, how do you follow up albums as good as Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights? Well, Little Oblivions is her best attempt to do so, and it’s a natural progression of her indie pop/rock sound – just as emotionally cathartic as her preceding work but with fuller instrumentation and more challenging lyricism. She’s never afraid to face suffering head-on.
9. Trivium – In the Court of the Dragon
On In the Court of the Dragon, Trivium has more bite than ever. One of modern metalcore’s frontrunners keeps their hold on the genre with a fiery concept album as good as anything they’ve released in their career (I’m talking about you, Shogun). Matt Heafy brings his screams back to the forefront, and the guitar solos are aplenty. What else could a metalhead ask for?
8. Origami Angel – Gami Gang
Gami gang forever. Origami Angel is quickly turning into a cult favorite in the emo scene, and it’s a well deserved honor. Their sophomore disc ups the ante with a 20-song romp piling elements of punk and hardcore on top of their breezy emo base. For anyone who grew up playing Nintendo and watching Star Trek, Gami Gang personifies a rowdy millennial house party.
7. Switchfoot – Interrobang
Just as Switchfoot was turning into a legacy band whose best days were behind them, the San Diego rockers shook up our world with the dark and intricate Interrobang. They rebuild their sound from the ground up, tugging at their influences (from Radiohead to The Beatles) in this earthy alternative rock exploration – and the result is their best album in over a decade.
6. Between the Buried and Me – Colors II
When I talked to Tommy Rogers in 2015, he took offense that fans compared their new work Dream Theater. To turn Between the Buried and Me into a derivative of themselves (the defining progressive metal act of their era) is a true disservice – especially after hearing the magnificent Colors II. The spiritual sequel to Colors puts a new spin on their creative forward thinking.
5. Every Time I Die – Radical
Every Time I Die vocalist Keith Buckley hyped Radical into oblivion, and the five-year wait certainly didn’t help calm our cravings. But somehow it’s lived up to all expectations – not that it’s surprising for the most consistently domineering band in metalcore. Radical takes the group’s signature sound and turns things up to 11 across this relentless set of 16 face-melting bangers.
4. nothing,nowhere. – Trauma Factory
A tried-and-true act in the emo rap movement (don’t tell Joe Mulherin I called his project that), nothing.nowhere. has evolved into a genre-bending full band. He’s not settling, but instead exploring new territory. Trauma Factory is the breakout record the scene needed, veering into percussive pop (“Upside Down”), pop-punk (“Fake Friend”), and even hardcore (“Death”).
3. Silent Planet – Iridescent
Three years is the longest we’ve had to wait for a Silent Planet album, but it’s understandable why. On top of a show-halting pandemic, vocalist Garrett Russell spent time in a mental hospital. The product of his experiences, “Trilogy,” sets the stage for Iridescent, an epic firestorm of metalcore that’s less textbook and more personal than any other LP they’ve done.
2. Holding Absence – The Greatest Mistake of My Life
Holding Absence showed potential on their self-titled debut, and The Greatest Mistake of My Life shatters all previous notions. This monumental release merges their post-hardcore sound with the perfect ounce of alternative rock, pop, and emo. The emotion is palpable on “Curse Me with Your Kiss” and “Beyond Belief,” which are equally gorgeous as they are heartwrenching.
1. Turnstile – Glow On
What else can I say about Turnstile’s Glow On that any other publication hasn’t? A handful of them already beat me to the punch naming the record their top album of 2021. But I cannot stress enough how important this release is for the hardcore genre. Glow On’s mainstream triumph is well deserved, helping the band set a whole new standard for what hardcore can be.