By Sam Woodhouse
#10 Butterfly 3000 – King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
I’m a little ashamed to admit that the release of L.W. in February of 2021 left me more than a little disappointed. At the time I felt like it was their most underwhelming release to this point. King Giz and company must have sensed my disappointment because only four months later they dropped what is to date my favorite KGLW release yet. The group is well known for reinventing themselves with each release but on Butterfly 3000 they took this ethos to the next level. Incorporating electronic elements paired with frequent acoustic guitars creates a soundscape that is best compared to their 2019 release, Fishing for Fishies. The album plays as an experimental garage rock gem perhaps produced in the Japanese experimental punk rock scene of the 1980s and 1990s. Something with such a niche sound could only be pulled off by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and believe me, they nail it!
#9 Jubilee – Japanese Breakfast
Japanese Breakfast’s last two studio releases established Michelle Zauner as a thoughtful songwriter with a penchant for emotionally charged lyrics and ambient soundscapes. These elements persist into her most recent effort, Jubilee, with the addition of danceable grooves as seen on the second track, Be Sweet and the fourth track, Slide Tackle. This record showcases Japanese Breakfast’s versatility without sacrificing any of the aesthetics that makes the act unique. Stories of heartbreak and pain also persist into Jubilee but within a context of finding ways to move on from these experiences. The production and arrangement on this album is simply stunning which perfectly complements the overall aesthetic of the record. If you want to dance, cry and have a good time please listen to Jubilee.
#8 Is 4 Lovers – Death From Above 1979
The newest contribution from Ontario rock Duo, Death From Above 1979, might very well be the heaviest release on my list. If you choose to check this record out (which you should!!!) you’ll find something that you might categorize as Radiohead meets The Strokes but with just layers of fuzz. Sonically this album is crushing and complex. Instrumentally it’s mostly composed of bass guitar, drums and perhaps the occasional drum machine or auxiliary percussion. The arrangement is so stunning you’ll swear you’re listening to a fully instrumented group which makes the record’s ingenuity that much more stunning. Lyrics include content that makes fun of rich people, reference Scorsese films and present interesting takes on what it means to live a modern life. This album will give you the adrenaline rush of a mosh pit in a lightning storm and I for one love it.
#7 Life is Not A Lesson – Glitterer
On Life Is Not A Lesson, Glitterer fuses alternative rock and punk rock to create what feels like the perfect punk record for 2021. The album presents big questions to think about, not necessarily because we want to but because they are being screamed in our faces. If that sounds like an uncomfortable experience, you may be surprised when you give Life Is Not A Lesson a spin. With the longest song being two minutes and 30 seconds and the average song length being just over a minute you will not lose attention with this record. At a total running time of twenty-one minutes this album gets in, gets the job done and gets out. This is not a bad thing at all and in fact compliments the punk rock aesthetic of the record. It leaves more time to think about what you’ve heard and leaves a taste in your mouth to listen to the record again. Get your face blown out by fuzz. Groove to bouncy basslines. Think about life. Repeat.
#6 As The Love Continues – Mogwai
I’m a fan of instrumental music but it’s not my go to style of composition when I’m looking for something to listen to. When music lacks lyrics I find that the instrumentals have to be extra good for the piece to be cohesive and let me tell you As The Love Continues fits this claim perfectly. Despite the fact that all but one track on this album is purely instrumental I didn’t find myself losing interest for one second during my first listen, my second, my third and so on to the point that it’s embarrassing how much I came back to this record over the course of 2021. Though it is very different in Genre, I would put As The Love Continues up there with other great instrumental records from the likes of Miles Davis and Booker T. & the M.G.s. Granted, this record was my introduction to Mogwai, a group that has a back catalog dating to the 90’s. That being said if someone asked me for an instrumental album recommendation I would suggest As The Love Continues, despite the genre, no question.
#5 Sticky Thumb – Hether
Sentimental? Psychedelic? Lo-fi? Lovely? Sticky Thumb by Hether is all of these things and more. If you want a listening experience that is as equally emotional as it is sonically unique this is the record for you. With musings most likely from Mac Demarco to Tame Impala Hether’s debut full length creates a cozy sound with emotional lyrics that are extremely engaging. But don’t be fooled, although Sticky Thumb is undoubtedly indebted to modern lo fi psychedelic classics this album creates its own impactfully quirky but deep sound. There are few records that feel like you’re taking your mind for a walk while also emotionally connecting to a lyrical protagonist but somehow this record does it.
#4 Endeavor – The Muckers
Are you ready for an upbeat psych rock adventure? If you answered yes, then you are ready for Endeavor by The Muckers! I was lucky enough to catch this stunning act a couple of Treeforts ago at the Korah Shrine. It was easily one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. One Treefort later I caught them again at the main stage and was sure to pick up a 10-inch copy of their EP It’s Better Without You. Flash forward to 2021, I was very excited to learn that they had a debut full length coming out. When it finally did drop in February it immediately entered my heavy rotation for the rest of the year. Endeavor expands upon the sounds established on their previous EP while also moving in a new direction. You still hear all of the elements of Disco and psychedelic but with an added dose of 70’s prog rock condensed down into tracks that typically run between 3-4 minutes. This is a good album to chill out to or boogie out to, either way you’ll have a fantastic time.
#3 Cooler Returns – Kiwi Jr.
2021 was a great year for Indie Rock and Cooler Returns by Kiwi Jr. is a shining example of why. With catchy melody lines and guitar hooks for days this album had me immediately invested and I’m sure it’ll prove the same for you. Though it came out early in the year, it was a release I came back to month after month. Many of the lyrics on this album take a cynical look at everyday things such as weddings, free haircuts, voting politics, and at times even video games. However, don’t be fooled that this is a downtrodden album. Kiwi’s lyrical musings are on brand with the nearly tongue and cheek approach used by Parquet Courts or even local legends King and Queen of the Losers. With a style found somewhere between the infectious indie pop of the 90’s and contemporary indie rock this sub pop release can pump up any rainy day or enhance a fun day in the sun.
#2 Home – Rhye
The best way to describe Home by Rhye is beautiful and groovy, two words that often aren’t paired together when describing an album. Between the soft, seemingly transparent vocals and smooth production style it isn’t long into this record that you don’t feel like you’re drifting through clouds. At the very least consuming this album feels like an experience. Yet the album is still fun and danceable. Though Rhye hasn’t wandered far from the style presented in previous releases this record shows the mastery of the smooth and sultry rhythms the artist is known for. Whether the track is about love, lust, trust, or sensuality you’ll find yourself grooving out to the infectious backbeats while perhaps thinking of someone you care for.
#1 Sling – Clairo
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact emotions that Sling presents to the listener but nonetheless it’s an emotional and impactful experience. Raw and honest are the two words I would pick to describe the intentions of this album. With lyrics ranging from the love of one’s pet to the misogyny that still persists in modern society there’s really something for everyone. Sonically this record sounds like the lovechild of Elliot Smith, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and perhaps a little bit of Fleetwood Mac thrown in.
The melodies and songwriting are simply incredible. Within a single track you experience beautiful acoustic guitars and the pleasant surprise of funky grooves laid down by keyboards or even a woodwind section. The incredible songwriting is only matched by Jack Antonoff’s immaculate production. It’s gotten to the point where virtually everything this man touches approaches a production masterpiece.
With Clairo’s soft singing style and dense, beautiful harmonies, Antonoff was an obvious choice as producer for this record and this wise decision shows. Above all, Sling received my album of the year pick because it may be one of the greatest musical left turns in the last few years. On Clairo’s debut LP, Immunity, the tracks have a more hyperpop themed approach. Seeing Clairo graduate from this style to such an individualist genre is one of the most exciting evolutions I’ve been fortunate enough to witness in modern music. If you want a record that has you sipping a cup of cocoa while reaching for a tissue as well as rushing to the dance floor this is the album for you. Listen to Sling. You won’t be sorry.