Rosy Overdrive’s Top 100 Albums of 2021 (100-76)

I don’t want to do a big preamble to the year-end list this time around. It’s long enough as it is. This year, it is 100 albums, ranked. 51 through 100 go up today (Monday, December 6th), and 1 through 50 will be posted the day after (Tuesday, 12/7). Thanks for reading.

…Okay, fine. Rosy Overdrive started a year ago as a place for me to post my favorite records of last year somewhere where people might read and care about them, and it quickly became a lot more than that. Rosy Overdrive wrote about 147 different albums and EPs in 2021 (who’s to say there won’t be a few more before December’s over), and via the playlists highlighted and talked about over 24 hours’ worth of songs as well. 100 albums is a lot–but I had to leave out several good records to get there. I don’t know what will happen in 2022 with Rosy Overdrive, but it will continue to exist and cover new music in some form or another. Separate lists for EPs and reissues/compilations will go up later this month, or maybe early January. Thanks for reading, again. Seriously. Oh, and here’s a Spotify playlist of the 98 of these albums available on streaming services, if that is useful to you.

See also:
Part Two (75-51)
Part Three (50-26)
Part Four (25-1)

100. Wake Up – Tigers Can’t Be Choosers

Release date: February 14th
Record label: Maggot Chic/Figbox
Genre: 90s indie rock, power pop
Formats: Vinyl, cassette, digital

We’re kicking off the 2021 year-end list with a record that’s actually several years old. Tigers Can’t Be Choosers came out in February, but Wake Up recorded these songs in 2012-2013 before they were shelved for several years as the band, led by Los Angeles’ Evan Mui, focused on new material. The pandemic caused Mui and crew to look back, and I’m grateful they did—Tigers Can’t Be Choosers is an inspired collection of 90’s indie rock-influenced music that deserved to see the light of day. Mui’s melodic vocals conjure up Stephen Malkmus’ solo career at its most melodic, and there’s also a There’s Nothing Wrong with Love guileless pop sensibility to the record, particularly in opening track “I Gotta Gettaway”, one of the best songs of 2021 easily.

99. John R. Miller – Depreciated

Release date: July 16th
Record label: Rounder
Genre: Country, folk rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Eastern West Virginia’s John R. Miller is new to most, but he’s not new—he’s been making music since the 2000s either leading, co-leading, or playing behind the scenes in bands like The Fox Hunt, Goodwolf, and Prison Book Club, as well as building a solo career as “John R. Miller & the Engine Lights”. Depreciated, his solo debut for historic Rounder Records, seems to be Miller’s moment: featuring a handful of re-recorded songs from his earlier days and plenty of new ones, Depreciated is a more-than-fine introduction to Miller’s lonesome country-folk. The country groove of opening track “Lookin’ Over My Shoulder” and the rambling “Faustina” are the starkest examples of Miller’s talent, while more subtle songs like the Craigslist ad “Half Ton Van” are growers.

98. Gold Dust – Gold Dust

Release date: October 15th
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Folk rock
Formats: Cassette, CD, digital

After putting in some time in the underappreciated Massachusetts shoegaze group Kindling, Gold Dust is the first solo material to come from Easthampton’s Stephen Pierce, and it finds him moving towards a warm folk rock sound. Gold Dust embraces a Neil Young-ish hybridization of folk songs and rock band instrumentation, where lazy acoustic guitar picking, strumming, and beautiful vocal melodies sit alongside meandering, soaring electric guitars and a blanket of distortion. The classic 60s and 70s folk influence is most obvious on the “clear” tracks like “Cat Song”, but Pierce buries strong writing underneath the fuzzy exterior of songs like “Anywhereing” as well. (Read more)

97. Gabriel Bernini – You Got Me

Release date: October 22nd
Record label: Dadstache/Requested
Genre: Folk rock, country rock
Formats: Cassette, digital

You Got Me came together on both coasts of the United States—Gabriel Bernini wrote the album in his Los Angeles apartment while also apparently trying to make it as a comedian, and he went to his native Massachusetts to record the record with a cast of New England friends and collaborators. The end result is an infinitely comfortable folk rock album that doesn’t exactly hide its Bob Dylan and Lou Reed influences, but You Got Me never sacrifices Bernini’s songwriting for cosplay’s sake. The leisurely title track eases us all into Bernini’s friendly universe, and Bernini only continues to impress with songs like “Under All Summer” (featuring an excellent falsetto from the singer) and the equally-casual “Honeybee”. If this truly is the last new album to be released by Rochester, New York’s Dadstache Records, then they’ve gone out on a high note.

96. Grace Vonderkuhn – Pleasure Pain

Release date: August 13th
Record label: Sheer Luck
Genre: Garage rock, psych-rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

The second album from Wilmington, Delaware group Grace Vonderkuhn is a godsend for anyone looking for loud rock music that can command one’s attention with just a no-frills, power trio setup. Lead singer Grace Koon is one of indie rock’s more compelling vocalists, on display both in straight-up garage-y rippers (lead single “Put it on Me”, the amusingly-titled “Rock & Roll Gary”) and slow-burners (the title track, “Outside Girl”). Although Grace Vonderkuhn remain serious about rocking out, Pleasure Pain is a fun listen as well, thanks in part to the bouncy pop hooks of “Deep Ends” and “Things Are Changing” in the middle of the album. With these, along with the glowing lyrics from the closing ballad, “Illuminated”, Pleasure Pain makes the case for pleasure winning out in the end. (Read more)

95. Herzog – Fiction Writer

Release date: March 19th
Record label: Exit Stencil
Genre: Power pop
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Herzog has been making their fuzzy garage rock out of Cleveland, Ohio for a decade now, and an entire year of that decade was spent slowly rolling out Fiction Writer—one song released a month, until the 12-track record was fully available in March. Despite the delayed release, these songs are all very much of a piece with each other and form something greater than the sum of their parts. Fiction Writer is a multi-layered collection of meta-rock anthems that find Herzog both playing with and taking literally the album’s title and how it relates to themselves as a band. And Herzog has a blast playing along with it, too—they still indulge in the garage rock numbers that garnered them semi-accurate Cloud Nothings and Weezer comparisons back in the day, but an aging musician/songwriter narrator connects Fiction Writer and gives it extra weight. Not that you need to feel said weight to enjoy the record, though. (Read more)

94. Birthday Ass – Head of the Household

Release date: April 23rd
Record label: Ramp Local
Genre: Post-punk, no wave, jazz-rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Head of the Household is marked by the wild horn-section-led, adventurous jazzy rock of the Birthday Ass Players, and by the equally wild vocals of lead singer Priya Carlberg. The record is a kinetic and chaotic affair that’s certainly informed by their New England Conservatory background, but it comes off quite playful and pop-tuneful thanks to ample twists and turns through its nine songs. Opening track “Blah” starts, stops, and writhes around, and features a motor-mouth vocal from Carlberg that’s compellingly Pere Ubu-esque. All of Carlberg’s interjections and the music’s seemingly-unpredictable path are working very much in tandem with each other; as much as they might sound “tossed off” or “random”, I’m sure a lot of work went into making these songs cohere in such a way. There isn’t a dull moment on Head of the Household. (Read more)

93. Really From – Really From

Release date: March 12th
Record label: Topshelf
Genre: Emo-jazz, post-rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital

With their self-titled third album, Boston’s Really From take a musical turn towards the expansive, opening up their unique blend of jazz, emo, and math rock in new ways but never letting this get in the way of their most cutting and focused lyrics to date. The down-stroked alt-rock verses of “Yellow Fever” and the ambient floating of “Apartment Song” are a bit curious back-to-back, but the mood-setting of the former and the punchiness of the latter both make sense in context. A band putting together something this musically adventurous always runs the risk of getting lost in the weeds, but the depth at the heart of Really From (the grappling with trying to learn a parent’s native language in “Try Lingual”, or the unflinching portrayal of household racial dynamics in “The House”) come through loud and clear. (Read more)

92. Katy Kirby – Cool Dry Place

Release date: February 19th
Record label: Keeled Scales
Genre: Indie folk, folk pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital

The debut record from Texas-born, Nashville-based Katy Kirby is a classic singer-songwriter album that uses “folk rock” as a starting point for wherever its creator wants to take it. Cool Dry Place includes Auto-Tuned pop rock (“Traffic!”), balladry (the Leonard Cohen-quoting “Secret Language” and the gorgeous title track), and sparse folk (“Eyelids” and “Portals”). Songs like “Juniper” and “Fireman” feel timeless already, and I can tell that Kirby’s popularity is only going to grow by how much Cool Dry Place has already resonated with people. For instance: my mother does not get a vote on the Rosy Overdrive year-end list, but I know for a fact that Cool Dry Place would top her ballot (“I love her” – her full review).

91. Footings – Annihilation

Release date: July 30th
Record label: Sophomore Lounge/Feeding Tube/Don’t Live Like Me/Trailing Twelve
Genre: Folk rock, alt-country
Formats: Vinyl, digital

The New Hampshire band Footings is led by Eric Gagne, with a backing cast that’s made up of musicians that have played in other New England bands such as Pile and Rick Rude. Like most of the acts that have graced Sophomore Lounge’s roster, Footings plays an expansive, inclusive brand of Americana/folk rock that’s as likely to lapse into ambient acoustic guitar plucking as it is to build to a post-rock crescendo—sometimes within the same song, like the mini-epic opening track “Tornado” or the ambitious “Heading West”. Suffice it to say, Annihilation packs a lot into under 30 minutes; weary folk/country reprieves like “Sometimes” and “Lottery” allow us a moment on the ground before Annihilation takes off yet again.

90. Lily Konigsberg – Lily We Need to Talk Now

Release date: October 29th
Record label: Wharf Cat
Genre: Indie pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Lily Konigsberg may have done the most in 2021. Her band Palberta helped kick off the year back in January with their third album, she released a compilation of previously-released solo singles and EPs in May, released an EP as My Idea with Nate Amos two months later, and appeared on several releases by Amos’ This Is Lorelei project throughout 2021. To top it all off, we get Lily We Need to Talk Now, which is somehow only Konigsberg’s debut full-length, and it features everything I’d come to expect from Konigsberg. Lily We Need to Talk Now hops around fearlessly from the ambient haze of “Don’t Be Lazy with Me” to the minimalist Auto-Tuned pop of “Hark” to the classic giddy Konigsberg guitar pop of “That’s the Way I Like It”. I do wish it was a little longer than 24 minutes, sure, but it’s plenty substantial even at short-LP length.

89. Fortitude Valley – Fortitude Valley

Release date: October 29th
Record label: Fika
Genre: Pop rock, power pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Fortitude Valley is a new band founded by the Brisbane, Australia-originating, Durham, England-living Laura Kovic, and she’s recruited some Durham-area indie rock royalty to fill out the four-piece. Half of Rosy Overdrive favorites Martha play in Fortitude Valley (guitarist Daniel Ellis and drummer Nathan Stephens Griffin), in addition to bass from Greg Ullyart of Night School. Fortitude Valley isn’t a far cry from Martha’s catchy, energetic power pop/pop-punk hybrid sound, but Kovic has a vocal and writing style distinct from her bandmates’ other group: it’s a little more unassuming and laid-back than Martha’s constant exuberance, perhaps befitting the Australian suburb from which the band and album take their names. Kovic’s a compelling songwriter, and I look forward to hearing more from Fortitude Valley.

88. Spirit Was – Heaven’s Just a Cloud

Release date: October 22nd
Record label: Danger Collective
Genre: Fuzz rock, drone rock, doom metal
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital

Of the three singer-songwriters in the legendary (to me) cult indie rock band LVL UP, we’ve had to wait the longest for Spirit Was’ Nick Corbo to deliver a post-breakup full-length record. Heaven’s Just a Cloud comes three and a half years after LVL UP split, and the album is anything but slight. I had expected Corbo would indulge some of his heavier influences more now that he was on his own, but it’s still absolutely shocking when opening track “I Saw the Wheel” ends with a black metal breakdown. The rest of Heaven’s Just a Cloud isn’t quite as intense, but it still traverses new territory for Corbo. Down-tuned guitar riffs, glacial-paced fuzz rock, droning vocals that drift in and out of the songs—this isn’t “LVL UP but just the Nick songs”, and it’s not even in the same world as what his former bandmates Dave Benton and Michael Caridi are doing now. It’s Spirit Was.

87. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson – Theory of Ice

Release date: March 12th
Record label: You’ve Changed
Genre: Folk rock, spoken word
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Theory of Ice, the latest album from Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg author and singer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, is a strong collection of writing that draws inspiration from water and its forms, as well as her experiences as an indigenous North American. She and an all-star group of Canadian musicians steer the album deftly from forceful full-band folk rock (like their update of Willie Dunn’s withering “I Pity the County”, or the last half of the slow-building “Surface Tension”) to spare acoustic-led songs like “Failure of Melting” and “The Wake”. The louder moments are powerful on their own, but the quiet tracks let Simpson’s environmentally- and historically-aware but just as frequently poetic and in-the-moment lyrics come through clearly.  “July 15th, thirty cubic meters / Just like the Gwich’in always said,” she intones in “Failure of Melting”, before an equally important announcement: “I bring you coffee, a blanket, moonlight”.

86. Mac McCaughan – The Sound of Yourself

Release date: September 24th
Record label: Merge
Genre: New wave, post-punk, ambient pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

After making a pair of more experimental collaborative records with Mary Lattimore, The Sound of Yourself is closer to a “normal” Mac McCaughan solo album—but still a far cry from the indie punk of his main act. The Sound of Yourself feels like a low-key but sturdy affair from the Superchunk frontman and Merge Records co-owner, in which dreamy instrumental tracks sit alongside New Order-esque synthpop experiments and more “classic” McCaughan-sounding faire. Songs like the title track and “I Hear a Radio” are the most “post-punk” McCaughan has ever sounded, and vocal-less tracks like the ambient “36 and Rain” take some getting used to, to be sure. But it’s commendable that he’s pushing himself at this stage in his career, and that so much of the “weirder” tracks on The Sound of Yourself are successful is just as impressive as when he busts out a Portastatic-sounding pop tune (see “Dawn Bends”).

85. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

Release date: June 4th
Record label: Dead Oceans
Genre: Indie pop, pop rock, dream pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital

As any reader of Rosy Overdrive can probably guess, I don’t have much of a handle on what’s “relevant” in the current “indie” “music” “landscape”. Among the inarguably Big Indie releases, however, Jubilee would have to get my vote for the best one of the year. It’s probably my favorite Japanese Breakfast album so far—Soft Sounds from Another Planet was impressive and all, but I never found myself eager to just throw it on and listen to it with the frequency with which I do with this one. The unabashed pop songs like “Be Sweet” and “Savage Good Boy” are fun and more than substantial enough to hold up with repeated listens, and the “studio tracks” are basically built for that kind of experience. Oh, and any record with “In Hell” on it is going to end up on this list.

84. Nervous Dater – Call in the Mess

Release date: February 26th
Record label: Counter Intuitive
Genre: Indie punk, emo, pop punk
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Call in the Mess is Nervous Dater’s second album, following 2017’s solid Don’t Be a Stranger, and it sounds a lot like a band growing and taking a step forward together. The New York band can be broadly described as “emo/pop punk”, but Call in the Mess mostly seems to go with “whatever fits the song best”. “The Dirt” sports classic power pop synth hooks over a gruff punk vocal from drummer Andrew Goetz, and if “Farm Song” isn’t exactly “country rock”, the Lorenzo Wolff-played slide guitar is very real (and surprisingly fitting). Lead singer Rachel Lightner’s songs are as sharp as ever, essential for delivering the apocalyptic “Violent Haiku” and the mid-tempo doom-march of “Turn Them Ourselves in the Grave”.

83. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime

Release date: May 21st
Record label: Matador
Genre: Psychedelic rock, blues rock, Tuareg guitar
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

I was a little let-down by Afrique Victime at first—it felt less inspired to me compared to their excellent 2019 record, Illana (The Creator), which was a breakout moment for both Mdou Moctar and their then-label, the Sahara-specializing Sahel Sounds. It turns out that I just needed more time for The Riffs to work their magic on me. And Mdou Moctar’s Matador debut and first album as a four-piece (previously it had been the solo project of Tchintabaraden, Niger’s Mahamadou Souleymane) certainly has riffs—the swirling electric guitar at the center of opening two tracks “Chismiten” and “Taliat” are hypnotically pleasing, and later on in Afrique Victime, “Layla” does it all just as effectively built around an acoustic. Afrique Victime isn’t a step down—the Tuareg guitarist and his band might actually be at their peak.

82. Dave Scanlon – Pink in Each, Bright Blue, Bright Green

Release date: January 15th 
Record label: Whatever’s Clever
Genre: Indie folk, ambient folk
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Pink in Each, Bright Blue, Bright Green is a minimal folk album, one that trades the experimental rock of Dave Scanlon’s band JOBS for fingerpicking, speak-singing, and pastoral lyrics. Its sparse instrumentation and gentle vocals remind me more of Phil Elverum’s recent work over anything else, but there isn’t any one Dave Scanlon “style” over the course of the record. “Water’s No Crop” and “She Is the Girl Behind Your Money” grab one’s attention through vivid lyrics and busy picking, while the rest of the album plumbs various depths—“Everybody Knows” floats along through ambience and harmonics, “Indoors” is a near-spoken spoken word rumination on what its title suggests, and “We’ll Ride in Your Car” is a beautifully straightforward slowcore ballad. Pink in Each, Bright Blue, Bright Green—a good an argument as any for “less is more” in 2021. (Read more)

81. Pile – Songs Known Together, Alone

Release date: August 20th
Record label: Exploding in Sound
Genre: Slowcore, ambient rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Songs Known Together, Alone, a sparse reinterpretation of selections from the Pile songbook, is merely the latest example of why “noise rock/post-hardcore” remains an unsatisfactory genre description for the Boston band. Essentially a pandemic-induced Rick Maguire solo album, half of it was recorded using synthesizer and (mostly in the form of accents and flourishes) electric guitar, and the second half Maguire plays alone on piano. For the most part, Maguire pulls from the moody and atmospheric side of his band, like “Hair” and “Keep the Last Light On”, but he isn’t afraid to tackle louder Pile tracks like “Afraid of Home” and “Mam’s Lipstick”. And I don’t know how exactly to categorize what he did in interpolating “Rope’s Length” and “My Employer” into a single nine-minute experience, but it sounds like nothing else in 2021. (Read more)

80. Styrofoam Winos – Styrofoam Winos

Release date: February 12th
Record label: Sophomore Lounge
Genre: Alt-country, indie folk
Formats: Vinyl, digital

A supergroup of sorts, Nashville’s Styrofoam Winos feature three songwriters with notable discographies of their own—Lou Turner, Joe Kenkel, and Trevor Nikrant, and all three of them contribute their own styles to the band’s stuffed 40-minute self-titled record. Just in the first three songs, they rip through the country-fried egg punk of “Stuck in a Museum”, the charming southern folk duet of “In Your Room”, and the plaintive, Tweedy-esque “Once”. The final half or so of Styrofoam Winos floats away as if exhausted from the more raucous numbers earlier, but the lightly-strummed, caught-in-a-moment reflections of “Maybe More” and the string-aided mundane observations of “Wrong Season’s Length” are no less deftly-executed. (Read more)

79. Mythical Motors – A Rare Look Ahead

Release date: October 29th
Record label: Lo-Fi City
Genre: Power pop, lo-fi pop
Formats: Cassette, digital

Mythical Motors bandleader Matt Addison shares much with his clear main influence, Robert Pollard: his penchant for collage-based album art, his lo-fi guitar pop, and even his choice of collaborators (A Rare Look Ahead was mastered by frequent Pollard producer Todd Tobias), even if his exuberant, ageless voice sounds more like Tobin Sprout’s. A Rare Look Ahead is Mythical Motors’ only record of 2021, and it picks up where their second album of 2020 (October’s Sleepwalking on Main Street) left off, with chiming lo-fi pop rock.  In true Mythical Motors fashion, A Rare Look Ahead chugs through psych-tinged pop bites, tossing out 4-tracked power chords and vocal melodies at a clip of about two minutes per song. Even though the record does find Addison stretching out a bit with some (gasp) longer than two-minute songs and a handful of acoustic moments, A Rare Look Ahead never lets go of its pop convictions. (Read more)

78. Dummy – Mandatory Enjoyment

Release date: October 22nd
Record label: Trouble in Mind
Genre: Noise pop, shoegaze, neo-psychedelia
Formats: Vinyl, CD, cassette, digital

The sensory overlord, crate-digging noise pop of Los Angeles’ Dummy is a glove-like fit for Trouble in Mind Records, the home of their debut full-length album. Mandatory Enjoyment grabs one’s attention early on with its blend of shoegaze reverb/buried vocals with a krautrock rhythm section and droning keyboards, and the album only expands Dummy’s sound from that point. They explore delicate dream pop (“Cloud Pleaser”), a five-minute psychedelic journey (“H.V.A.C.”), restrained post-punk (“X-Static Blanket”), and spare lounge pop (“Aluminum in Retrograde”) before the curious but hypnotic closing track, “Atonal Poem”, sends us all on our way. Mandatory Enjoyment is an exciting debut that does what any “record collector” band seeks to do—synthesize sounds from the past into something new and vibrant. (Read more)

77. Pardoner – Came Down Different

Release date: May 14th
Record label: Bar None
Genre: 90s indie rock, post-punk
Formats: Vinyl, cassette, digital

Pardoner’s third album is some nice comfort music, for me at least. Came Down Different splits the difference between the hooky 90s indie rock revival of 2018’s Playin’ on a Cloud and the fuzzed-out, Polvo-inspired noise rock of 2017’s Uncontrollable Salvation. The last track on the new album, “Fuck You!”, even shouts out Polvo’s Ash Bowie, in addition to a bunch of other “dumb old guys” from which the Bay Area band have taken notes. Songs like “Totally Evil Powers” and the title track put them in the same sphere as the recent strain of garage-y post-punk revival bands, but extraordinarily loud and noisy pop songs populate the majority of Came Down Different (even the poppiest track, “I Wanna Get High to the Music”, turns into an alt-rock rave-up in the last part of its 70-second runtime).

76. Smol Data – Inconvenience Store

Release date: May 14th
Record label: Open Door/Broken Camera
Genre: Pop punk, indie punk
Formats: Vinyl, cassette, digital

Inconvenience Store is another scrappy under-the-radar indie punk, emo-adjacent rock record—at least on first blush. Musically, its unabashed, almost theatrical giddiness is a remarkable achievement, and the writing style of Smol Data’s Karah Goldstein is fascinating to me as well. Goldstein’s prose is not exactly purple or flowery—each individual line is fairly straightforward and makes sense on its own, but the songs on Inconvenience Store resist being easily strung together to make a linear story. That being said, there’s clearly a semi-autobiographic throughline of some sort across Inconvenience Store, but one doesn’t need to trace everything to appreciate the sharpness of tracks like the mini rock opera of “Bitch Store” and “Cartoon Str8 People”, which somehow sounds both tightly-controlled and right on the edge of falling off into something.

Click here for:

Part Two (75-51)
Part Three (50-26)
Part Four (25-1)

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