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

If you’re only just now joining us: this is part two of my list of my favorite forty albums of 2021 thus far, presented in reverse alphabetical order. Thanks for reading!

View part one of the list here.

Listen to/follow a playlist of these albums here.

Kiwi Jr. – Cooler Returns

Release date: January 22nd 
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre: Jangle pop, 90s indie rock
Formats: Vinyl, cassette, CD, digital

It’s a pleasant surprise that Kiwi Jr. is back already with their sophomore LP after the blast that was Football Money (one of my favorite albums of 2020). They feel ever-so-slightly less eager to please on Cooler Returns—they don’t slow down the tempo too much or abandon hooky choruses, but mellowing out just a bit is a subtle but nonetheless bold move for the Canadian band. An emphasis on bass and more acoustic parts leads to a surprising point of comparison for me—early Spoon, before they ended up as the unflappable groovers they would end up becoming. It’d be far too dramatic to say that Kiwi Jr. have strangled the jangle pop band of Football Money with Cooler Returns, but what they have made is a distinct and rewarding follow-up to a debut that merited one. (Read full review)

Ross Ingram – Sell the Tape Machine

Release date: May 3rd
Record label: Hogar
Genre: Folk-tronica
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Ross Ingram is a producer and engineer at his own Brainville Recording Studio, where he partially recorded his first solo full-length, Sell the Tape Machine. It’s therefore hard not to pick up on subtle sonic flourishes throughout the album and attribute it to his studio background. However, Sell the Tape Machine has a surprisingly songwriting-forward approach, with Ingram’s vocals and lyrics coming through crystal-clear at center stage. Lyrically, Sell the Tape Machine is all over the place, as Ingram maps his own internal ups and downs. Sometimes, the highs and lows come in the same track—Ingram’s moments of confidence often feel fragile and tenuous, and his moments of despair are offset by tenderness a few lines later. What’s impressive about Sell the Tape Machine isn’t just that it’s “confessional” songwriting, but that Ingram builds something around this foundation that enhances the initiating emotions. (Read full review)

Idle Ray – Idle Ray

Release date: May 7th
Record label: Life Like Tapes/Half-Broken Music
Genre: Power pop
Formats: Vinyl, digital

After a very good trilogy of albums released under his own name throughout the back half of the 2010s, Michigan’s Fred Thomas has been quietly releasing singles and demos as Idle Ray over the past two years. The payoff, the project’s self-titled debut, is a cohesive dozen songs that stand up against any of his past work. Even though Idle Ray comes under what’s ostensibly a band name, these songs were mostly recorded by Thomas alone on 4-track, and finds the songwriter embracing lo-fi pop rock that shades lyrics about isolation, fractured and fading friendships, and interpersonal interaction-trigged anxiety. Songs like “Polaroid” and “Coat of Many Colors” work out feelings perhaps exacerbated by the pandemic but coming from somewhere deeper within Thomas over some of the most straightforward, catchy pop music I’ve enjoyed this year, and against all odds it leads to Idle Ray being a perfect summer record. (Read full review)

The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy

Release date: February 19th
Record label: Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers
Genre: The Hold Steady
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

On the heels of the success of their half-album, half-singles-comp Thrashing Thru the Passion in 2019, Open Door Policy is The Hold Steady’s first attempt to create an entire LP’s worth of songs that work together in seven years. The band’s eighth record noticeably contains a lower ratio of unapologetic sing-along choruses than their mid-2000s work and Passion, but with Craig Finn and company sounding as sharp as ever, Open Door Policy comes off as a welcome convergence of Finn’s most recent and best solo album (2019’s I Need a New War) with the Hold Steady’s full band power. The run from “Lanyards” to “Heavy Covenant” rivals any stretch from the band’s “golden” period, and they do it by nailing left turns (“Unpleasant Breakfast”), very clear callbacks (“Family Farm”), and in-betweeners (“Heavy Covenant”) alike.  Nearing two decades together, they’re still working with a similar roadmap, but aren’t afraid to annotate it and try some new routes. (Read full review)

Harmony Woods – Graceful Rage

Release date: March 12th
Record label: Skeletal Lightning
Genre: Emo, alt-rock, folk rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

The third album from Harmony Woods, the project of Philadelphia’s Sofia Verbilla, is an incredible-sounding record that takes a long, unflinching look at the aftermath of a traumatic relationship throughout its eight songs. Produced by Bartees Strange, Graceful Rage adorns Verbilla’s complicated, contemplative lyrics with flourishes of Kate Rears’ cello, Brian Turnmire’s horns, and a shiny exterior that alternatively builds everything up (like in the scene-setting opener “Good Luck Rd.”) or burns it all down (the pop-punk scorcher “God’s Gift to Women”, which is Verbilla’s hardest lean into the rage portion of Graceful Rage). After tackling difficult emotions for the entirety of Graceful Rage, Verbilla saves her most definitive statements for the album closer “I Can’t”; namely, “You will never hurt me again” and “I can’t forgive you”. Too well-polished to deny but too emotionally hard-hitting to take in casually—every pop songwriter wants to make an album like Graceful Rage, but very few have the courage to even try, much less put enough of themselves into it to make it stand as tall as this.

Guided by Voices – Earth Man Blues

Release date: April 30th
Record label: GBV, Inc.
Genre: Power pop, post-punk
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Guided by Voices have presented Earth Man Blues as a cohesive rock opera of sorts, which would seem to contradict the album’s initial description as a  “collage of rejected songs”— but with an end result that hangs together this well, I don’t feel particularly inclined to question Robert Pollard and company. There are stretches on the album like the back-to-back 70-second sugar rush of “Margaret Middle School” and one of the band’s best ever Tommy moments in “I Bet Hippy” where Pollard is clearly reaching for an overarching story, and it works as a catalyst for an exciting run of songs if nothing else. The album has a looseness to it that reminds me of my favorite of the recent Guided by Voices albums, August by Cake, but while that record’s grab-bag quality was a matter of its transitional circumstances, Earth Man Blues earns its dexterity by being the product of a band that’s only grown more comfortable and in tune with each other—disparate tracks like “Lights Out in Memphis (Egypt)” and “How Can a Plumb Be Perfected?” stand proudly side-by-side. (Read full review)

Gaadge – Yeah?

Release date: March 19th
Record label: Crafted Sounds
Genre: Shoegaze, noise pop
Formats: Cassette, CD, digital

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Gaadge are a swirly rock band that started as the project of Mitch DeLong, but has since evolved into a full-band effort. The reverb-heavy sound of their debut full-length nods to, among others, the revved-up hard-shoegaze of Ovlov and Swervedriver, the chaotic noise pop of The Spirit of the Beehive, and the tender lo-fi melodies of Guided by Voices and Alex G—not to mention their heroes, My Bloody Valentine. The six-minute psychedelic rock odyssey of “Thrill” is the peak of their deeply-layered, sensory-overload streak, but Gaadge also shine on the relatively straightforward alt-rock of “Flipping Shit” and “Holy Formers”. They’ve already got a particular sound down pat, and frequently hint at a duality they could explore in the future. (Read full review)

Fust – Evil Joy

Release date: May 28th
Record label: Dear Life
Genre: Country-folk
Formats: Cassette, CD, digital

The debut album from Durham, North Carolina’s Fust is a record of gentle, deliberate, and clear Americana/folk rock that evokes the work of troubadours like Richard Buckner and Bill Callahan. Fust bandleader Aaron Dowdy spins memorable songs out of little more than a wearily melodic vocal and relatively sparse instrumentation, which follow the album’s narrative tracing the emotional ups and downs of a deteriorating relationship. Song titles like “The Last Days”, “The Day That You Went Away”, and “When the Trial Ends” all nod to the album’s main throughline, and though Evil Joy is mostly in the past tense, Dowdy’s narrator is still reckoning with matters that don’t seem wholly resolved throughout the album. It’s not until Fust ride off into the wild blue yonder on album closer “Wyoming County” that Evil Joy finally gives us a hint of finality. (Read full review)

The Fragiles – On and On

Release date: February 12th                      
Record label: Living Lost
Genre: Fuzz rock, lo-fi rock
Formats: Cassette, digital

David Settle continues to keep busy. Last year he released two albums as Psychic Flowers (which ended up on my best of 2020 list) as well as another solid record from his longer-running band Big Heet. This time around it’s The Fragiles, whose second record On and On continues the pop songwriting Psychic Flowers explored but also allows itself to stretch out a bit more than that project’s ramshackle nature. The album (mostly recorded by Settle, with a couple drum credits and a lead guitar credit) is still fairly lo-fi and fuzzy, but Settle wrings twists and turns out of these tools, like opening On and On with the slow-burning title track only to then let loose with the fuzzy power pop of “Kaleidoscope”. The latter song’s title evokes The Chills and the Dunedin sound in general, and “Garden of Cleaners” nods to another influence, Martin Newell—but songs like the lumbering “Success Is…” confirm that On and On is more than just hero worship. Whatever the moniker, it’s another worthy effort from Settle and his collaborators. (Read full review)

Fishboy – Waitsgiving

Release date: April 2nd
Record label: Lauren
Genre: Power pop, twee pop, folk rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Waitsgiving, the latest album from Denton, Texas’ Fishboy, is an intricate, detailed work of indie rock storytelling that weaves a cohesive and unique narrative across ten songs, forty years, and three generations of characters. Bandleader Eric Michener and the band gleefully marry their instrumentals (which sit somewhere between Elephant Six orchestral pop and folk punk) to a record-long narrative whose complexity and grandiosity is normally reserved for progressive rock operas. Taking all of Waitsgiving in at once, it’s refreshing to hear a band just go for it like Fishboy have done here—and it works both because Waitsgiving has the songs to back up their conceptual moon-shot, and because the album’s message of art for art’s sake rings true coming from the long-running band. If there’s anything to take from Waitsgiving, it’s that these songs would be just as valuable if we weren’t hearing them. (Read full review)

FACS – Present Tense

Release date: May 21st
Record label: Trouble in Mind
Genre: Noise rock, post-punk, dub
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

The fourth album from the experimental Chicago band FACS in as many years just might be their most complete effort to date. Present Tense offers up seven songs from the trio (drummer Noah Leger, bassist Alianna Kalaba, guitarist/vocalist Brian Case) that continue to probe sonic depths but still very much leave the footprint of a rock band. Most of Present Tense is grounded in Kalaba and Leger’s sonic assault, like the increasingly disorienting opener “XOUT” and the prowling industrial music of “General Public”. “Strawberry Cough” is positively catchy, the FACS version of a psychedelic pop anthem with a shouted chorus featuring triumphant usage of the word “hauntology”. Of course, they follow it up with the nine-minute “Alone Without”, the one song where the band truly unmoors itself. It’s a worthwhile endeavor, following FACS there and back again.

Eleventh Dream Day – Since Grazed

Release date: April 2nd (digital), August 7th (physical)
Record label: Comedy Minus One
Genre: Indie goddamn rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Eleventh Dream Day have carried on through more than three decades of lineup shifts, major label drama, and relocating from Louisville to their current home of Chicago. The band’s most recent records had suggested that they had finally settled into a lane of Crazy Horse-inspired guitar freakout rock and roll—but Since Grazed is a late-career left-turn. It’s a double album, clocking in at around an hour in length, making it the band’s longest record to date. It’s filled not with extended guitar soloing and garage rock jams, but with expansive, skyscraping, deliberately-sculpted songs like the sweeping title track and the immortal ballad “Just Got Home (In Time to Say Goodbye)”. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Eleventh Dream Day have turned in something as strong as Since Grazed after thirty years of musical vitality, but that they did it by expanding and reshaping their sound is remarkable in its own right. (Read full review)

Editrix – Tell Me I’m Bad

Release date: February 5th 
Record label: Exploding in Sound
Genre: Math rock, post-punk, “avant-rock”
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Editrix are a power trio of sorts, voiced and guitared by Wendy Eisenberg and further enhanced by drummer Josh Daniel and bassist Steve Cameron. Tell Me I’m Bad deals in chaotic yet catchy guitar squalls and a kinetic rhythm section that does not get in the way of Eisenberg’s strong vocal hooks and memorable lyrics. There are moments—such as the one-liner drop and subsequent instrumental rave-up of “Instant”—that remind me of a zippier Grifters, and turns like when “Sinner” morphs into a bizzaro marching number in its second half that back up the band’s stated prog influence. Tell Me I’m Bad is like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle—full of jagged edges, rewarding in the long run, and greater than the sum of its parts. (Read full review)

Downhaul – PROOF

Release date: May 21st
Record label: Refresh
Genre: Emo, alt-rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Downhaul’s PROOF is an album carefully crafted to give off a serious, smoldering listening experience for the entirety of its ten tracks. Lead vocalist Gordon Phillips’ baritone guitar leads an instrumental controlled-burn that’s grounded by his own stoic drawl. The fifth overall release and second full-length from the Richmond band probes thematic depths from the harrowing seven-minute opening track “Bury”, and PROOF continues to decline pulling its punches from there. The specter of collapsed relationships, both romantic and otherwise, hovers over PROOF, like when Phillips laments his failures in holding onto friendships in “Circulation”. Closing track “About Leaving” is more clear-eyed, and the song’s music is the lone callback to the band’s earlier alt-country days, right up to its cathartic twangy guitar solo. It’s a suitable way to end a record that examines the power of personal baggage and the equally powerful pulling force of time. (Read full review)

Dinosaur Jr. – Sweep It into Space

Release date: April 23rd
Record label: Jagjaguwar
Genre: Indie rock, alt-rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

The new Dinosaur Jr. album sounds like the band decided to make a whole record out of the hooky alt-rock singles from their “reunion” albums (You know: “Over It”, “Tiny”, “Almost Ready” etc.), and while I’ve enjoyed some of the more “out there” moments from those recent albums, just throwing out a dozen classic Dinosaur Jr. pop songs elevates Sweep It into Space above most of their considerable discography. Five albums into what could’ve just been a nostalgia-fest, the second J. Mascis-Lou Barlow Dino Jr. run should be taken seriously as a force rivaling their initial time together. Although Mascis makes it sound like he could do songs like the acoustic-rocking “I Ran Away” and the bouncy “Hide Another Round” in his sleep, I don’t want to take his consistency for granted. Nor should Mascis’ songwriting distract from Barlow’s “Garden”, which might be the best song he’s ever contributed to his most famous band.

The Dead Space – Chlorine Sleep

Release date: May 7th
Record label: 12XU
Genre: Noise rock, post-punk
Formats: Vinyl, digital

The second record from Austin’s The Dead Space is a lean effort from the power trio that’s either on the angular side of noise rock or the tougher side of post-punk, depending on one’s perspective. Chlorine Sleep, which comes a full seven years after the band’s debut album, is carried by a beefy rhythm section made up of bassist/vocalist Quin Galavis and drummer Jenny Arthur. Galavis’ vocals, which can go from “unassuming” to “anxious and angry”, are not quite as immediately noticeable, but they add a dimension to these songs, especially numbers like the pummeling, paranoid opener “La La Man”. In other places, like the title track and “Animal”, The Dead Space are content to build a foundation in which to let Galavis and guitarist Garrett Hadden mess around. The one outlier is album closer “True Shame”, that adds a violin and sounds almost like a slowcore song. It’s still crushing, just from a different angle.

Corvair – Corvair

Release date: February 19th
Record label: Paper Walls/wiaiwya
Genre: Power pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Portland husband-and-wife duo Brian Naubert and Heather Larimer have been involved separately in various Pacific Northwest bands for the past two decades or so, but they’ve only just now gotten around to recording something together. Born out of COVID-19 quarantine, the project’s self-titled debut is an impressive, ambitious work of indie pop that’s both immediate and multi-layered. They cite Electrical Light Orchestra as an influence, and this is borne out by Corvair’s big hooks that come via both guitar and synthesizer. These songs also remind me of The New Pornographers—another ELO-indebted band—particularly in moments like Larimer’s melodic verse vocal for “Green (Mean Time)”. Moments like the travelogue “Focus Puller”’s relatively sparse first half let the album’s thematic undercurrents peek through, but the song’s groovy second half remind us that Corvair are going to have fun with all this, no matter what.

Cloud Nothings – The Shadow I Remember

Release date: February 26th
Record label: Carpark
Genre: Alt-rock, noise rock, power pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital

Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi has been keeping busy with a subscriber-based steady stream of quarantine releases—in the time between The Shadow I Remember’s recording and its release, Baldi has come out with two Bandcamp-exclusive Cloud Nothings albums. Even though it actually predates 2020’s The Black Hole Understands, The Shadow I Remember has as much in common with that record’s shiny power pop than it does with that of the band’s last “proper” release, 2018’s pummeling Last Building Burning. Singles “Am I Something” and “Nothing Without You” may be a little rough around the edges, but they’re pop songs first and foremost, and “Nara” is downright gentle. Still, The Shadow I Remember never comes off as “easy listening”, and moments like the frantic verses of “Only Light” and the 90-second sprint of “It’s Love” lean into the “recorded by Steve Albini” of it all. After ten years and nearly as many great records, it’s heartening that Cloud Nothings show no signs of slowing down—in terms of album quality, at least.

Cicala – Cicala

Release date: January 8th  
Record label: Acrobat Unstable
Genre: Alt-country, “post-country”
Formats: Digital

South Carolina’s Cicala make sharp alt-country-tinged indie rock that’s very up my alley, something I ascertained about eight seconds into the rootsy earnestness of opening track “Truck Stop”. Bandleader Quinn Cicala’s characters and narrators frequently find themselves alternating between driving somewhere and stopping at some kind of liminal space, making grand proclamations and life decisions somewhere in the turns, only to eventually come back to Earth, resolving that their denouement will come in the next few miles, or at the next rest stop. Cicala proves they can write a winning song in several guises—whether it’s the careening garage rock of “Red Rocks”, the mid-tempo farm emo of “Intervention”, or the world-weary “Will”. They label themselves as “post-country”—a movement I can get behind. (Read full review)

The Boys with the Perpetual Nervousness – Songs from Another Life

Release date: February 5th 
Record label: Bobo Integral
Genre: Jangle pop
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Songs from Another Life’s all-too-short runtime is stuffed to the brim with jangling guitars, beautiful vocal melodies, and bright, shiny numbers with titles like “Waking Up in the Sunshine” and “Summer” that still somehow have a melancholy cloud hanging over them. The Teenage Fanclub comparisons are unavoidable, right down to the Scottish accent of Andrew Taylor, one half of the duo behind TBWTPN. But Taylor and his counterpart, Gonzalo Marcos, do draw from elsewhere in the jangle pop lineage—and regardless, these songs are simply too well-crafted to dismiss. TBWTPN work very hard to wring genuinely affecting emotional material from these well-worn tools, and Songs from Another Life’s best moments (like the contemplative “Rose Tinted Glass”, the pleading “Can’t You See”) are completely transcendent. Perhaps the highest praise I can give this record is that I like it more than the actual Teenage Fanclub album that also came out this year. (Read full review)

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