Rosy Overdrive’s Top 40 Albums of 2021 So Far (Part 1 of 2)

Well: the year is nearly halfway over, so I shall now commemorate it by sharing my forty favorite records from it thus far with you, the Rosy Overdrive reader. I could have done more than forty albums. I have heard significantly more than forty good albums so far this year, many of which you can read about in the site’s archives. But I’m also hearing new good music every day, and I would like to write about some of it instead of spending too much time effectively recapping what I’ve already covered (although there are a few albums here I hadn’t touched on yet). Plus, I’d like my big year-end list to be majority stuff-that-isn’t-here.

Since my 2020 year-end list was in alphabetical order, I thought it was only fair to go in reverse alphabetical order this time around. Sorry if you’re upset about this. I’ve made this a two-part list, with the second part going up the day after the first. This is sort of a test; if people would prefer everything to hit at once, then I’ll take that into account for next time. While a couple of EPs did sneak onto the list, I mostly stuck to full-lengths. I’ve heard many great EPs in 2021 and I promise they will get their due before the year is out.

Thanks for reading, and here is a streaming playlist of my choices.

View part two here!

Writhing Squares – Chart for the Solution

Release date: March 26th
Record label: Trouble in Mind
Genre: Space rock, psychedelic prog rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

If phrases like “space rock odyssey”, “modern prog rock double LP”, and “psychedelic saxophone” pique your interest, then Writhing Squares’ Chart for the Solution is for you. The Philadelphia duo earn all these descriptors, and more, over the album’s 71-minute sprint. Some of the more “out there” moments include the motorik opener “Rogue Moon” and the cosmic horror spoken word piece “The Library”, but Writhing Squares also trade in mirror-universe skewed pop songs like “Geisterwaltz” and “Ganymede”. The album’s brass instrumentation, post-punk aggression, cosmic aural assault, and unabashed recalling of King Crimson and other classic progressive rock bands all help to put Chart for the Solution on its own planet. (Read full review)

Dan Wriggins – Mr. Chill

Release date: March 12th
Record label: Orindal
Genre: Alt-country
Formats: Cassette, digital

Dan Wriggins has gained modest notoriety as the lead singer for the Philadelphia “ambient country” group Friendship, but 2021 has been the year he struck out on his own. If the inclusion of an EP on this list bothers you, just mash all three of Wriggins’ solo releases—this one, the “Dent / The Diner” single, and his Utah Phillips covers EP—together, but Mr. Chill is strong enough on its own to stand among the full-lengths. These five musically sparse songs feature only Wriggins’ acoustic guitar, occasional organ and piano stabs, and fellow Friendship member Michael Cormier’s steady drumming, which all help Wriggins’ distinctive warble and strong songwriting to shine. The title track and “Lucinda on June Bug” are some of Wriggins’ sharpest lyrics to date, and “Season” is able to tread darker waters just by slightly altering Mr. Chill’s core sound. (Read full review)

Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood

Release date: January 29th 
Record label: SPINSTER
Genre: Fingerstyle acoustic guitar 
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Despite being the only entirely instrumental album on this list, Yasmin Williams’ sophomore record is full of songs that communicate their ideas, themes, and throughlines just as well as any of the other records here do, if not better. Urban Driftwood is full of memorable moments—the quiet picking on opening track “Sunshowers” that gives way to a giddy riff, the arresting tap-heavy main motif of “Swift Breeze”, Taryn Wood’s cello accompaniment in “Adrift”. Almost the entire album solely features Williams’ guitar playing; the few collaborations (Wood’s cello, Amadou Kouyate’s djembe and cadjembe on the title track) are wisely chosen and only serve to enhance Williams, who plays like she knows she can carry the entire album herself. Whatever the ceiling is for fingerstyle acoustic guitar music in 2021, Urban Driftwood makes it feel like the stratosphere. (Read full review)

Subsonic Eye – Nature of Things

Release date: January 15th  
Record label: Middle Class Cigars
Genre: Indie/dream/jangle pop
Formats: Vinyl, cassette, digital

Singaporean indie rock band Subsonic Eye pull away from the noisier elements of their sound to hone into something more sublime with Nature of Things, somewhere between Sonic Youth’s last couple of albums and the guitar-first dreaminess of The Sundays. They can do pure guitar pop (such as in “Fruitcake” and half of “Further”), but they’ve also got a melancholy streak to them (the heartstring-tugging “Kaka the Cat” and the other half of “Further”). The album cover is perfect—the map with the record’s song titles as fake landmarks is admittedly corny, but by making it look real enough to use for navigation and combining it with the “field guide” motif and the strange image to its left, it strikes the balance between “sweet and comforting” and “venturing into the unknown”. (Read full review)

Stoner Control – Sparkle Endlessly

Release date: March 19th
Record label: Sound Judgement
Genre: Power pop, pop punk
Formats: CD, digital

Portland’s Stoner Control are a real power trio. Guitarist Charley Williams, bassist Sam Greenspan, and drummer Michael Cathcart all contribute vocals and songwriting to the hooky, shiny, and appropriately-titled Sparkle Endlessly, which sees the band confidently plows through ten remarkably well-written guitar pop songs in thirty minutes and change. No matter who’s on vocals or credited as penning the song, Sparkle Endlessly is stubbornly consistent—Greenspan’s carefree, aurally sunglasses-clad talk-singing in “Learning to Swim” is the record’s first “wow” moment, while Williams guides the title track through four minutes of power-pop-punk perfection. Stoner Control has the smart pop sensibilities of album co-producer Mo Troper and the musical chops to flesh these songs out and find new ways to impress along the way. (Read full review)

St. Lenox – Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times

Release date: June 11th
Record label: Don Giovanni/Anyway
Genre: Indie pop
Formats: Vinyl, digital

St. Lenox’s fourth album, Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times, is a self-described “progressive, queer, spiritual record” made by a man who admits he is not particularly religious in several of its songs. Andrew Choi, the man behind St. Lenox, ends up creating an honest portrayal of religion and how we interact with it because of his questioning, uncertain perspective. Album opener “Deliverance” finds Choi confronting mortality in his middle age and admitting that he now may be open to these discussions—and the rest of the record is a headfirst dive into it all. Choi sympathizes with his Korean immigrant parents’ views on religion in “The Gospel of Hope”, traces his experience back to his childhood Lutheran church with “Bethesda”, and turns to both the galactic and molecular with “Superkamiokande”. An individual’s relationship with religion is never as static as some pretend; it’s influenced and altered by the people around them, society, and their own personal growth. Ten Songs of Worship and Praise… is a singular album that reflects this from Choi’s perspective. (Read full review)

John Sharkey III – Shoot Out the Cameras

Release date: March 5th
Record label: 12XU/Mistletone
Genre: Gothic country folk
Formats: Vinyl, digital

If you’re familiar with the icy post-punk bombast of John Sharkey III’s current band Dark Blue, then you might be surprised to hear that his solo debut is a sparse, largely acoustic folk record. Sharkey’s voice, however, is as unmistakable and affecting as ever on Shoot Out the Cameras. Recorded after Sharkey relocated to Australia from his native Philadelphia, his rich baritone anchors an album inspired by the wildfires visible ambiently in the distance, discord in both his adopted home and birth nation, and the country music passed down to him at a young age from his mother and grandmother. The record takes the listener to morbid and harrowing extremes in songs like “Death Is All Around” and “Pain Dance”, but there’s a defiant hopefulness that rears its head throughout Shoot Out the Cameras. It’s a traditional, universal, elemental album that strikes new ground for Sharkey by unearthing the old. (Read full review)

Russel the Leaf – Then You’re Gunna Wanna

Release date: February 26th
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Psychedelic pop, power pop
Formats: Cassette,Digital

Russel the Leaf’s sole member Evan M. Marré is a Philadelphia-based producer who’s amassed an impressive list of credits, including Remember Sports, Friendship, and Another Michael. On his own, Marré trades in the type of busily beautiful baroque pop that’s frequently associated with producer-musician studio rats. He invites Beach Boys comparisons right from the start with the nautical croon of “Sailin’ Away”, and the strings and vocal theatrics of “Skipping School” giddily continue them. Then You’re Gunna Wanna does anything but lose steam from then on, trotting out perfect pop songs like “Classic Like King Kong” and “Hey! (It’s Alright)” and indulging in full-on studio-bag-of-tricks mode with “California”. It’s an album that reveals even more of its charms with each listen. (Read full review)

Jeff Rosenstock – SKA DREAM

Release date: April 20th
Record label: Polyvinyl
Genre: Ska punk, punk rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital

So, we’re in the fourth wave of ska now? If so, cheers to Jeff Rosenstock for toiling away and bridging pretty much the entire gap between the third one and now—he never fully abandoned ska-punk, just toned it down enough to get the nerds in the door (or to, perhaps, get the nerds who listened to Bomb the Music Industry! back in high school but foolishly thought we’d “outgrown” that kind of music to return to the fold). Call SKA DREAM a celebration of a genre that only now seems to be getting taken seriously, further evidence of the greatness of NO DREAM (one of my favorite albums of last year), a well-earned victory lap for Rosenstock, or a celebration of the scene he and the like-minded individuals who make up the considerable guest-credits have cultivated—either way, this “oops, all ska” reimagining of his most recent solo album is a blast in its own right.

Rosali – No Medium

Release date: May 7th
Record label: SPINSTER
Genre: Folk rock, country rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

The third album from Philadelphia’s Rosali Middleman is a folk rock record—in that it genuinely sounds like a rock band playing these songs, rather than a “roots” music group that just happens to utilize traditional rock instrumentation. The David Nance Group, her backing band for No Medium, ends up being a spirited choice, as they help turn the record into her sharpest yet. The album contains its share of rock and roll fireworks, such as the careening riff in “Bones” and Middleman’s lead guitar in “Pour Over Ice”, but the slower moments on No Medium are just as impactful—“Tender Heart” and “All This Lightning” capture very different moments in interpersonal relationships, but land their punches with equal weight. With No Medium, Middleman has made an album that grapples with some fairly universal themes in a confident and affirming way but, instead of giving into the shallow and cliché, works precisely because of how personally evocative she makes these songs. (Read full review)

Tucker Riggleman & The Cheap Dates – Alive and Dying Fast

Release date: January 29th 
Record label: WarHen Records
Genre: Alt-country, roots rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Tucker Riggleman has been working the Appalachian DIY circuit for the past decade or so, playing in bands such as the fuzz-rockers Bishops and The Demon Beat, as well as making music under his own name. Alive and Dying Fast is the debut full-length of his new band The Cheap Dates, and they aren’t afraid to slow things down a bit in order to accentuate and compliment some of Riggleman’s strongest songwriting to date. Despite his evolved writing and under-the-belt experience, Riggelman paints himself as a man very much still in the middle of it all throughout the record. Over the course of Alive and Dying Fast, Riggleman chases his vitamins with beer, clings to his music idols (Paul Westerberg in “Void”, the obvious in “Robert Smith Tattoo”), swears to unnamed skeptics that he’s really an artist, and shouts into the void— all we can do is experience it with him in the moment (Read full review)

Remember Sports – Like a Stone

Release date: April 23rd
Record label: Father/Daughter
Genre: Pop punk, indie punk, “emo-adjacent”
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital

Like a Stone is a big leap forward from a band that was already good enough to not even need one to keep me interested. In one sense, it’s a world away from the sloppy indie punk that put them on my (and most of their fans’) radar, but on the other hand the traces are still there, whether they’re sharpening that sound to give it a stronger bite (“Pinky Ring”) or refining it into a slick, multi-part two minute pop song (“Like a Stone”). The songs that land the furthest from the band’s previous work are no less potent: “Materialistic” finds Remember Sports showing up all the Philly emo bands at their own game, the seven-minute indie pop shuffle of “Out Loud” is like nothing the band has done before but doesn’t feel out of place at all, and closing the record with a country-rock singalong (“Odds Are”) somehow works even better. Lead singer Carmen Perry’s songwriting is as hard-hitting as ever, but this time the music behind her is more than game to take Like a Stone to the next level.

Anika Pyle – Wild River

Release date: February 12th                      
Record label: June/Quote Unquote
Genre: Indie folk, synthpop, spoken word
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Anika Pyle spent the majority of the 2010s fronting emo-tinged DIY punk bands Chumped and Katie Ellen. Her first record on her own, however, is not the “Anika Pyle solo album” that a casual fan of either of those groups might conjure up in their head. It’s a sparse album, built from minimal synths, quiet acoustic guitar, and Pyle’s words—which are as likely to be spoken as they are to be sung. Although it didn’t totally come out of nowhere, Wild River confronts the listener head-on with this dimension of Pyle’s songwriting, and she uses her new music vocabulary to command your full attention. Poetry pieces, heavy recurring themes, and an unflinching account of a very real loss make Wild River nothing short of active listening. This is not to say that individual songs from the album could never stand on their own, but the heft of tracks like “Orange Flowers” is sharply enhanced by Pyle’s contextualizing spoken words. (Read full review)

Proper Nouns – Feel Free

Release date: April 23rd
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Power pop
Formats: Vinyl, cassette, digital

The first album from Baltimore’s Proper Nouns is an espresso shot of a record, featuring fourteen jaunty rock songs informed by classic guitar pop bands like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and Game Theory as well as bandleader Spencer Compton’s left-wing political pontifications. Compton leads the rest of the power trio (bassist Jon Birkholz and drummer Joe Martin) both through motor-mouth rave-ups like “Terror by the Book” and dangerously catchy mid-tempo pop-rock cruisers like “Redeeming Qualities”. Compton has a lot to say, and isn’t exactly waiting for the listener to catch up, but I’ve picked up bits and pieces by osmosis—the microscope turned towards academic leftism on “Emma”, the reflection on the changing cloud of information on “Y2k”. It bears repeating that Proper Nouns remain devoted to pure pop throughout it all, even on stranger numbers like the mathy “Nowhereland”, and their execution of it is what makes Feel Free a strong and promising debut.

Personal Space – A Lifetime of Leisure

Release date: March 19th
Record label: Good Eye
Genre: Indie pop, chill math rock
Formats: Digital

Brooklyn’s Personal Space ask more of the listener than your average chill indie guitar rock band. A Lifetime of Leisure’s ten tracks are populated with character sketches that look at various archetypes through the band’s leftist activist lens. “Ethical” media consumption, choices of wine, biting a Greek philosopher’s style—there’s nothing Personal Space can’t and won’t put under their analytical microscope. You don’t need to always be on the same ideological page as the band to enjoy A Lifetime of Leisure, however—the lyrics are just another ingredient in their languid guitar pop songs that triangulate the likes of XTC, Pinback, and the Dismemberment Plan. Despite its firm political convictions, A Lifetime of Leisure is less “exhausting” and more “commiseration and comfort for the exhausted”. As they say on one of the record’s best tracks: “It’s chill, man. I’m supine.” (Read full review)

Palberta – Palberta5000

Release date: January 22nd 
Record label: Wharf Cat Records
Genre: Post-punk, experimental punk
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

After trading in deconstructed rock music for the majority of their relatively brief career, Palberta are ready to step into the spotlight with their most inviting collection of songs to date. Palberta5000 is a positively accessible album that doesn’t lose the base components of a Palberta—hearing the band spin their scrappy post-punk into winning hooks and pop gold is like watching Sully land on the Hudson a dozen times in a row. Palberta5000 is still a fairly topsy-turvey album, though—“Big Bad Want” rides a single line and riff for four minutes in some sort of bizarre endurance test, and they even flirt with some multi-suite prog-pop a la Guided by Voices in the last couple of songs on the record. Whether it’s those outer reaches or the more straightforward moments (like the 90-second “Summer Sun”), the songs on Palberta5000 aren’t easy to forget. (Read full review)

Olivia’s World – Tuff 2B Tender

Release date: April 23rd
Record label: Lost Sound Tapes
Genre: Twee pop
Formats: Cassette, digital

Olivia’s World has geography-, label-, and personnel-based connections to K Records, but the second release by the now-Queensland-based band doesn’t just stick to the guileless indie pop to which many modern twee-indebted acts hew. Bandleader Alice Rezende’s songwriting is bursting with big ideas, and the group goes big musically to back them up. Now a four-piece, Olivia’s World paints Tuff 2B Tender with a layered, full-band sound that does justice to both ends of the EP’s title. Opening track “Debutante” gradually turns into a wall of sound featuring ringing piano and cascading guitars, “Hell-Bent” is a romp that features Rezende’s best stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and the pastoral fantasy of “Grassland” ends Tuff 2B Tender by finding comfort and strength in discovering and inventing new worlds. “Grassland” features a restless lyric from Rezende, who has traversed two continents and made several sonic strides with her band over its relatively short life. (Read full review)

Nightshift – Zöe

Release date: February 26th 
Record label: Trouble in Mind
Genre: Post-punk, no wave indie pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital

For their second album, Glasgow’s Nightshift have fashioned together an inviting collection of minimalist indie rock songs by taking a No New York-esque attitude to the melodic, utilitarian pop structures that recall Young Marble Giants or Marine Girls. Zöe is an album where many instrumental and vocal parts come unadorned, placed front and center for the listener to take in, and Nightshift offer up hypnotically catchy guitar riffs and repetitive vocals hooks from opener “Piece Together” on out. Despite the amount of empty space on Zöe, there are plenty of inspired instrumental choices—the liberal clarinet that first appears on early highlight “Spray Paint the Bridge” for example, and later helps accent the spoken-word musings of “Make Kin”. The record ends up feeling both ethereal and grounded; it’s not afraid to unapologetically present itself as “art”, but it doesn’t hide what makes it worth appreciating either. (Read full review)

Mister Goblin – Four People in an Elevator and One of Them Is the Devil

Release date: February 19th
Record label: Exploding in Sound
Genre: Post-hardcore, indie folk pop
Formats: Cassette, digital

Mister Goblin—both on his own and as part of the cult post-hardcore band Two Inch Astronaut— has honed in on a recognizable sound, led by his golden, effortlessly melodic voice combined with thorny guitar that, as a music writer, I am required to describe as “Dischord-esque”. The first two Mister Goblin releases (2018’s Final Boy EP and 2019’s Is Path Warm?) found the act probing depths beyond punk rock, and the excellent Four People in an Elevator and One of Them Is the Devil feels like the Goblin’s fullest realization yet of these new components. Lead single “Six Flags America” takes its trip to the amusement park acoustically, accompanied by tasteful cello playing, and “Cardboard Box” features a mortally wounded bird that ends its life on its own terms in the parking lot of a wildlife rescue over a mid-tempo drum machine beat. At 29 minutes, Four People in an Elevator… is a no-filler record by a songwriter who’s quietly becoming one of the most dependable in indie rock. (Read full review)

MJ Lenderman – Ghost of Your Guitar Solo

Release date: March 26th
Record label: Dear Life
Genre: Alt-country
Formats: CD, cassette, digital

Asheville singer-songwriter Jake Lenderman plays in the dreamy indie rock band Wednesday, but under his own name he’s made an album of lo-fi, offbeat country-punk that falls somewhere between David Berman (a noted lyrical influence) and early Simon Joyner (particularly in the voice cracking of “Catholic Priest” and the singsong melody of “Gentleman’s Jack”). Lenderman is an intriguing songwriter, finding fertile ground in the sight of Jack Nicholson sitting courtside at a Lakers game or the bizarre feeling of shame caused by seeing a friend or lover’s mother sleeping. Ghost of Your Guitar Solo is a short album (clocking in at around 25 minutes) and is anchored by two mostly-instrumental title tracks and a live version of one of the songs, which end up only enhancing the record’s ramshackle charm. The quality of these songs leaves me hoping we hear more from Lenderman soon. (Read full review)

Continue to part two!

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