Rosy Overdrive’s Top 100 Albums of 2021 (50-26)

Hello! Welcome, and thank you either once again or for the first time for reading. Today (Tuesday, December 7th), Rosy Overdrive’s Top 50 albums of 2021 are finally revealed. There’s a longer year-end preamble from one of yesterday’s posts (which highlighted albums 51 through 100), but do you really need it to understand what’s going on here?

See also:
Part One (100-76)
Part Two (75-51)
Part Four (25-1)
Spotify playlist of all the selections available on streaming

50. Psychic Flowers – For the Undertow

Release date: July 30th
Record label: Living Lost
Genre: Garage rock, lo-fi rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital

For the fourth record under the Psychic Flowers name, the ever-prolific David Settle has taken what had been his “loosest” project and turned in what feels like his cleanest, shiniest album yet. Ramshackle fuzz-pop is still the basis of For the Undertow’s sound, but the assistance of drummer Leo Suarez on the majority of these songs and a cleaner sound is unmistakable—putting the record squarely in between the lo-fi pop of The Cleaners from Venus/early Guided by Voices that had been Settle’s previous main influence and a new strain of heavier, Goner/In the Red Records sound. Straight-ahead rippers like opening track “Coming to Collect”, the bouncy acoustic fuzz of “For the Record”, and the pensive “Gloves to Grand Air” all benefit from the jolt of energy coursing through For the Undertow. (Read more)

49. Editrix – Tell Me I’m Bad

Release date: February 5th 
Record label: Exploding in Sound
Genre: Avant-jazz-math-pop-junk, post-punk, chillwave(?)
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Tell Me I’m Bad was the first of what would become four records released by Wendy Eisenberg in 2021—Editrix is Eisenberg’s jazz- and avant-garde-influenced indie rock power trio in which they play guitar alongside 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 bizarro marching number in its second half backs up the band’s stated prog influence. Tell Me I’m Bad is like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle—full of jagged edges, rewarding in the long run, and greater than the sum of its parts. (Read more)

48. Guided by Voices – It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!

Release date: October 22nd
Record label: GBV, Inc.
Genre: Power pop, post-punk, orchestral pop
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Even the “lesser” of the two Guided by Voices albums from 2021 has plenty to offer. While I think any reader of Rosy Overdrive can pick up on the fact that “replacement-level Robert Pollard album” on its own is probably enough for me to be into any given GBV record, It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them! does have something of a distinct identity stacked against the last couple of releases this lineup has put out. It’s destined to be known as the “symphonic” one, featuring some of the most ambitious non-rock-band-instrument arrangements that guitarist Doug Gillard has ever prepared for the band. But, as usual, it’s the songs that slot INTICBTIIT this high, whether they prominently feature strings and horns (“High in the Rain”, “Spanish Coin”) or stick to the typical offbeat Pollard power pop foundation (“Dance of Gurus”, “I Share a Rhythm”).

47. We Are the Union – Ordinary Life

Release date: June 4th
Record label: Bad Time
Genre: Ska punk, pop punk
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

The announcement of ska-punks We Are The Union’s fifth album dovetailed as vocalist Reade Wolcott’s public coming-out as a trans woman, and while Wolcott’s experience of realizing and coming to terms with being trans features prominently throughout Ordinary Life, the record also deals with romantic uncertainty and doesn’t always follow a direct autobiographical path. Songs like “Morbid Obsessions” and “Boys Will Be Girls” clearly celebrate where Wolcott has ended up, but don’t try to pave over the frequently rough path she took to get where she is now. Wolcott’s lyrics hop from first- to second- to third- person throughout the record, and songs like opening track “Pasadena” could have several meanings besides. The confident, perfunctory resolution of closing track “December”, in which Wolcott’s old self is finally “dead”, feels earned after a record that’s always fun to listen to, but is not “easy listening”.

46. 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. returned with their sophomore LP a mere year after the blast that was Football Money. 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. 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 more)

45. 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 the songs crafted by Taylor (who just released an excellent solo album) and his counterpart Gonzalo Marcos do draw from elsewhere in the guitar pop lineage, and these songs are too well-crafted to dismiss regardless. TBWTPN work very hard to wring genuinely affecting emotional material from these well-worn tools, and Songs from Another Life’s best moments (the contemplative “Rose Tinted Glass”, the pleading “Can’t You See”) are completely transcendent. (Read more)

44. Laura Stevenson – Laura Stevenson

Release date: August 6th
Record label: Don Giovanni
Genre: Folk rock, indie folk
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Let us not take Laura Stevenson for granted. While I’ve never exactly been a super-fan, I’ve known I could count on Stevenson for a solid folk/alt-rock album for years now, and her self-titled sixth record stands out even among her consistent discography. There’s a bit of everything that Stevenson does well on Laura Stevenson—opening track and lead single “State” evokes the tension and anger of Throwing Muses, “Sandstorm” is the catchy pop rock hummer, and delicate indie folk surfaces on “Moving Cars” and “After Those Who Mean It”. The record’s mid-tempo centerpiece, “Continental Divide”, like the record itself, succeeds by not sticking to one “Laura Stevenson style”.

43. 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—the hypocrisy and betrayal behind the heart of “Emma” require a lengthy explanation on its own—but it bears repeating that Proper Nouns remain devoted to pure pop throughout it all, even on stranger numbers like the mathy “Nowhereland”, totaling to a strong and promising debut.

42. 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 work.

41. 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 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 assert itself as “art”, but it doesn’t hide what makes it worth appreciating either. (Read more)

40. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Illusory Walls

Release date: October 8th
Record label: Epitaph
Genre: Post-rock, emo, math rock
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

Although Always Foreign is my favorite The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die album, I neither expected nor wanted the currently-five-piece emo band to pump out 11-song, 42-minute albums for however long they can stay together. Illusory Walls’ breadth does not disappoint; while it seems like that’s mainly “just” due to the two closing tracks at first, considering that “Infinite Josh” and “Fewer Afraid” make up an LP’s length together, that’s remarkable on its own. And the rest of Illusory Walls is heavy in its own way, too—much has been made (both positive and negative) of the band’s prog-metal turn on their fourth album. I like it, but even skeptics would do well to look beyond that and into David Bello’s vocals: his personal lyrics on the two quieter “Blank” tracks and, yes, the two colossal tracks at the end are some of his best yet.

39. Blunt Bangs – Proper Smoker

Release date: September 17th
Record label: Ernest Jenning Record Co.
Genre: Power pop, alt-rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital

Reggie Youngblood made a name for himself in the 2000s Jacksonville post-punk revival band Black Kids. Christian “Smokey” DeRoeck was part of the early, freak-folk days of Woods and most recently surfaced in the Silver Jews-indebted alt-country band Little Gold. Together, the two make…Teenage Fanclub-esque power pop? That’s right–from the moment opening track “She’s Gone” busts out its descending-chord structure, melodic guitar solos, and breezy vocal harmonies, there’s no mistaking where Blunt Bangs’ head is at on Proper Smoker. Even though the band made it clear that they’re intentionally shooting for 90s jangly power pop, bits of their other music output seep through occasionally: a bit of DeRoeck’s country rock on his songs, some Superchunk-esque college rock that befits their adopted home of Athens, Georgia. But it’s always tuneful, and always a blast. (Read more)

38. Ross Ingram – Sell the Tape Machine

Release date: May 3th
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 (as well as his band EEP’s Winter Skin, which appeared in Part Two of this list). It’s 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—his 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 more)

37. Erin McKeown – Kiss Off Kiss

Release date: September 24th
Record label: TVP
Genre: Pop punk, folk rock, power pop, folk punk
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

I am not naming any names. I would never want to blow up anyone’s spot, per se. All I’m saying is that some of you may be in need of Kiss Off Kiss, 2021’s strongest offering to the genre of “break-up music”. Twenty years and eleven albums into her career, Erin McKeown has made what might be the sharpest record in her catalog so far. The Virginia-based songwriter (and current touring member of The Mountain Goats) unloads a lot of classic-punk-pop-soundtracked grievances throughout Kiss Off Kiss, and no stone is left unturned: the passionless sexual experience of “Go Along / Get Along”, the immediate aftermath of a jilted hookup in “Today / Sex”, the “how’s your new one, by the way” finger-pointer of “Is / He Does / He”. Although there are a few slower tracks, Kiss Off Kiss isn’t a wallower—it drags triumph out of McKeown’s situation.

36. 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

Even though its recording actually predates 2020’s Bandcamp-exclusive 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.

35. Kitner – Shake the Spins

Release date: October 1st
Record label: Relief Map
Genre: Emo-indie-rock
Formats: Vinyl, digital

If the phrase “Omaha indie music scene” means anything to you, then you are already primed to understand and appreciate Kitner’s style of emotional heartland indie rock. Songs like “Junebug” and “Orient Heights” will be familiar in the warmest and best way—Conor Maier, the lead singer of the Boston band, sounds the most like Conor Oberst’s warbling voice on these quiet-to-dramatic tracks. Like any good new emo band, though, Kitner look beyond just one “sound”—in addition to Bright Eyes, the band’s more rocking numbers recall everything from The Get-Up Kids (“Suddenly”) to Dinosaur Jr. and The Hold Steady (“Malden, MA”). Shake the Spins also sounds great—many of its songs rely on acoustic-to-full-band transitions and the dynamic shifts that come with it, and the band (plus engineer Ryan Stack) give these songs the readings they deserve. (Read more)

34. 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 more)

33. 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 has ever contributed to his most famous band.

32. John Murry – The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes

Release date: June 25th
Record label: Submarine Cat
Genre: Folk rock, alt-rock, singer-songwriter
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital

2017’s A Short History of Decay was one of my favorite records of that year, a sometimes darkly-humorous, sometimes just-plain-dark personal southern Gothic reckoning from the Mississippi-born, Ireland-based John Murry. The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes is a bit rougher around the edges than A Short History of Decay, and it finds some freedom in that roughness. It’s still recognizably Murry, but songs like the fuzz-heavy title track and “Time and a Rifle” have almost a tossed-off, garage-rocking feel to them, likely at least partially due to legendary producer John Parish. Murry is still unmistakably the center of The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes—Murry’s hope, or at the very least, a desire for a better future in which hope can thrive, hides beneath the album’s cloudy surface. As Murry affirms in a quite affecting cover of Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World”: “I will learn to survive”. (Read more)

31. 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 the album is mostly in the past tense, Dowdy’s narrator is still reckoning with matters that don’t seem wholly resolved throughout Evil Joy. 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 more)

30. 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 Chumped or Katie Ellen listener 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 this turn didn’t totally come out of nowhere, Wild River confronts the listener head-on with this dimension of Pyle’s songwriting, and she uses this 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 more)

29. 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 Chart for the Solution is for you. The Philadelphia duo Writhing Squares earn all these descriptors, and more, over their latest 71-minute sprint of a record. 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 more).

28. 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 more)

27. Lilly Hiatt – Lately

Release date: October 15th
Record label: New West
Genre: Alt-country, country rock
Formats: Cassette, digital

Last March, right around the beginning of pandemic times, Lilly Hiatt released Walking Proof, which hinted at worlds beyond her (very solid) brand of alt-country, and was one of my favorite records of 2020. A year and a half later found Hiatt returning with a follow-up palpably shaped by the ensuing times. October’s Lately is a stripped-down, mid-tempo-heavy roots rock collection that finds Hiatt embracing an earned subtlety. The record’s mostly single-word titles (“Simple”, “Been”, “Stop”) further the humble feel of Lately—these songs began being written “as a means of keeping sane”, according to Hiatt. Like the album art suggests, Lately ends up being a snapshot of a tumultuous time, but the record’s grappling with confusion and with the emotional wildfire that is an isolated imagination will prevent Lately from ever feeling dated.

26. 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 (who released a solid album in its own right this year), but under his own name he’s made an album of lo-fi, offbeat country-punk that falls somewhere between David Berman’s more off-the-cuff moments and early Simon Joyner. 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. Along with August’s Knockin’ EP, 2021 truly was Lenderman’s year. (Read more)

Continue reading:
Part One (100-76)
Part Two (75-51)
Part Four (25-1)

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