Plastic Lizard's 21 Favorite Albums of 2021
2021 will mean a lot of different things to many different people. For me, as I look at 2021 in the future, it will represent a wave of change in my life. Although it doesn't define the individual listening to it, what you consume does have an effect as to how you view yourself. A lot of my own personal ambitions are tied up through the sounds that I was able to discover in 2021. This year was all about ambition for me, a word that has frightened me for years. I’ve always been a hard working person, but I fear the realization that comes with the word. I fear having to put myself out into the world to achieve what I personally want to achieve in my life. My year in music was spent listening to artists realizing their own personal goals. From albums that were made up of huge soundscapes, to more stripped back introspective records, listening to these people put a part of themselves out on record made me realize that I too can do something similar. After this year, I will stop thinking about success in terms of how many people you are able to grasp with your own personal works of art. There are artists of so many levels on this list, there are well known artists who have legions of fans, and there are smaller artists who don’t have many listeners as of yet. 2021 taught me that success isn’t judged based on Spotify streams, Instagram followers, or YouTube views, but by the stories that you are able to leave behind. The following 21 albums have helped me make it through this year and have taught me to create art and not to be afraid to show it to the world, because for every story, there is someone out there who is going to be touched by it. These are the records that have made me just a little bit more confident in myself and my own abilities, and I hope that you are able to find something through this list that you enjoy and carry with you for the rest of your life, or maybe at least a couple of days.
21. Jexno- No Fun
Sometimes, the best music within the year comes in unassuming packages. I was close to skipping Jexno because I figured, while it would have some sort of charm, it would lack the sort of substance that I was looking for within a release. If I wouldn’t have listened to this great piece of noise pop from one of Eastern Michigan’s most exciting musicians, I would have missed out on a colorful album that is as inventive as it is anxious and introspective. No Fun possesses a lot of ideas that people have loved before and will continue to love within their rock music, and at times sounds like what Weezer wishes they could have been. Yes you can tell Rivers Cuomo I said that, because I am sure he really doesn’t care what some guy who writes about music online as a hobby has to say about his artistic endeavors. If you’re looking for a fun lo-fi record to listen to that has been criminally overlooked in the year of 2021, then stop reading this subjective article about music and listen to No Fun by Jexno immediately!
20. Adi Keshet Cohen- Battleships
Crafting songs that are considered to be timeless is a quality that many musicians rarely have, especially in a time where the music industry pushes for a certain sound in order to gain a certain amount of streams quickly for the artist. Battleships, by Israeli-based singer-songwriter Adi Keshet Cohen, contains tracks that sound like they could be written in any given year and not sound outdated or like they are years ahead of the curve either, which in this case is a positive. Adi has a very engaging and sophisticated voice and a real knack for what she wants to sculpt a particular song to sound like. Upon listening to just about any track on Battleships, the listener can instantly tell that she is truly a student of the great vocalists who came before her, taking their craft and ideas and fitting it to her own voice, giving each song a breath of unique life and personality in the process.
19. Dobbeltgjenger- Smooth Failing
Norway’s Dobbletgjenger is able to combine so many genres of music perfectly within Smooth Failing that it would be an absolute shame to not include them on a list of best releases of the year. The Nordic band sees themselves examining their life on the road throughout this album. While these song topics tend to take a negative and cynical look at their lives and habits, the music that graces Smooth Failing tends to be funky, upbeat rock music. To the listener not paying attention this could be the soundtrack of the next great party, but Dobbeltgjenger dip into the deep end of personal topics throughout Smooth Failing, sounding ready for sold out arena shows and headlining spots at festivals while still maintaining a self critical eye.
18. Genesis Owusu- Smiling With No Teeth
Although this list tends to favor the smaller artists that this particular writer thinks deserves more attention, I cannot have a list of my favorite albums of the year without including some widely recognized favorites. Smiling With No Teeth gets here solely by blowing me away with the sheer hit power on this track list. Genesis Owusu is one of the musical mixed bag highlights of the year, as he’s able to blend rock, funk, hip hop, and R&B amongst other influences seamlessly throughout this 50 minute project. It’s an album that certainly made Genesis such a big name in such a short time and certainly deserves your time based on both overall inventiveness and substance alike. This is truly an album that falls in the ‘something for everyone’ category. If there was one album to listen to in 2021 that holds cultural significance and quality of music alike, I think this would be my pick for just about anyone.
17. Naked Days- My Head Hz
The first record of 2021 I remember getting fully stuck in my head, My Head Hz contains some of the most lush and vulnerable lyricism and instrumentation that I have had the pleasure of hearing within the year. Albums that are perfect in their imperfections make their way in this list quite a bit, and it's a quality that I quite frankly love about the lo-fi bandcamp crowd right now, proving that perfect music doesn’t need to be perfect and that the people making the music can choose to be vulnerable through their performance to get their true emotions across to listeners. My Head Hz is a very stripped back look at the human experience and the listener can’t help but feel like they are right there in the room with Degnan Smith and company as they are figuring out what each song needs to fully realize itself. My Head Hz is a true exercise in figuring out what a song needs to express an emotion and proof that sometimes what a song needs and what makes a song perfect isn’t necessarily the same, and the realization of this makes My Head Hz a great listen.
16. Alicia Walter- I am Alicia
A mixture of vocal jazz and progressive pop elements, I Am Alicia, by New York-based artist Alicia Walter, contains some of the most energetic tracks of the year. The highlights throughout this album continue to blow me away with each listen and are able to pump so much serotonin into my blood in moments where I need it the most. Alicia’s vocal sensibility mixed with her willingness to experiment with ideas throughout this album that seems to be a celebration of individuality makes this album worthy of so much more attention than it got in 2021. It’s an ambitious project that could have failed heavily, but these risks that Alicia was willing to take throughout the entirety of this album pay off in a massive way throughout I Am Alicia.
15. dltzk- Frailty
If you’ve been following music closely for the past couple of years, you would know that the bubble of ‘hyperpop’ has been close to popping from the underground to a more mainstream audience for quite some time now. dltzk fits into this genre, but does much more with the overall concept of what hyperpop can be than many who are producing music with this certain genre label to it. dltzk proves to us all on Frailty just what this style of music can be, blending qualities of singer-songwriters of the past and putting these ideas into an emo-filled blender, dltzk gives the masses the most exciting thing to come out of the genre in 2021. I have a sinking suspicion that this album will be looked at in years to come as one of the seminal albums to propel the ethos of the hyperpop movement further into the mainstream and shift how artists associated with the genre approach their song structures.
14. feeble little horse- Hayday
Fueled with just enough attitude and irreverence to excite any indie rock fan, Pittsburgh’s Feeble Little Horse blitzed onto the scene with a short and snarky album full of songs that absolutely sink deep into your brain. Most songs throughout Hayday are shorter, ending under the 2 and a half minute mark, acting as a sketchbook of an album of sorts. This doesn’t necessarily mean the band struggles to land ideas, though, as the songs do just enough, never overstaying their welcome while doing their job, getting the listener over the metaphorical edge. Hayday feels full of youthful energy, and you can tell that this group of particular people don’t really care what anyone else thinks of their art. This sort of carelessness helps craft some of the best indie rock of the year and is sure to gain the band many more ears in 2022.
13. Dreamwell- Modern Grotesque
The emotional intensity that is reached in Providence, Rhode Island’s premier screamo outfit, Dreamwell, isn’t something that can be achieved very easily. It's no fluke that a group like Dreamwell can accomplish the sense of urgency and emotional vulnerability that they are able to on their sophomore album, Modern Grotesque. This is screamo music with so much heart, as moments of insanely deep pain seem to be swept away at once with absolutely gorgeous arrangements. I am no expert of the genre, but this seems to be one of the rare screamo albums that is able to fully encapsulate the full range of the human experience, as the band circles around insanely heavy topics like death, religion, and abuse. It’s an intensely personal release that is sure to stick around in the listeners mind for quite some time.
12. sun is poison- caribou killer
Sun is poison’s latest endeavor further proves to the masses that you don’t need high end production equipment or a wide array of instruments in order to convey a point across musically. The tracks on caribou killer, while not terribly flashy in nature, pack a huge punch to anyone who gives this album the time of day, as the delivery and abstracted poetry that surround each song takes on a life of its own. Another highly personal and introspective release on this list, caribou killer has been the soundtrack to many cold weathered nights where I feel just the right amount of existentialism creeping inside of me.
11. Black Country, New Road- For The First Time
Again, I have attempted to favor albums that have been underlooked in the course of the year, and For The First Time certainly does NOT fit that bill in the slightest, as it’s probably on every single ‘best of’ list this year, including this one. There’s a reason though, that these accolades are being given to this group that call London their home, as the music blends genres in such a brilliant way. Touches of post-punk and free jazz are intertwined seamlessly as we get a vocal delivery that seems to teeter somewhere in between spoken word and personal journal entry at times, and it makes for one of the most thought provoking records of the year.
10. McKinley Dixon- For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her
Music is full of great storytellers, people who are able to poetically express thoughts about themselves and the world around them are not hard to find in the world of music. What is hard to find, however, is someone who is able to thread a narrative that seems to touch so many different topics, memories, and experiences as seamlessly as McKinley Dixon is able to on For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her. The Richmond, VA-based artist leaves the listener with so much to think about, and interconnecting it all will have you thinking for days. The music that accompanies these poetic lyrics about grief, trauma, and black identity is something to also get excited about. McKinley’s arrangements that are being spoken and rapped over are some of the best examples of jazz rap instrumentation that I have heard in quite some time. The music that accompanies the lyricism is able to give the deep poetic nature of the record another layer of meaning throughout. This is a very mature and well-thought-out bookend in a trilogy in the career of McKinley Dixon and I cannot wait to see what will be tackled on the albums to come from such a thoughtful lyricist.
9. audiobooks- Astro Tough
Combining upbeat synth pop beats with off kilter lyrical style and delivery, audiobooks successfully combine two things that people don’t typically associate with one another on Astro Tough. Some of the stories throughout the tracks on this album are quite bizarre, but that’s what makes this album so intriguing to me. Opening track ‘The Doll,’ for example, is a story in which the narrator meets a girl all by herself on the side of the road and wants the narrator to call the police because of this. There are so many uncanny occurrences on this record, making it a very mysterious and cryptic experience at times. While there is a sense of mystery looming throughout Astro Tough, there is plenty of playfulness that is on display throughout, it causes the album to sort of take on a duality of meaning, keeping the listeners attention and causing them to start the album all over when the last track ends, because they can’t get enough.
8. Grave Saddles- You Thought You Were Cool
The first album for the band after their name change, (formerly released music under the name Ambersmoke) You Thought You Were Cool is the soundtrack of your next 2 am drive surrounded by complete nothingness in one of America’s many roads looping through small towns that you’ve never heard of. The desolation that I feel while listening to what the band describes as the ‘Cosmic High Desert’ sound throughout the record remains unmatched, as the band blends a shoegaze instrumentation with an Alternative Country edge and vocals that feel like they are straight off of a slacker rock record. The blend that the band is able to achieve on this record really does excite and as I continued to listen to it throughout the year, it became a little bit of a dark horse record for me, crawling it’s way onto my Top 10, and I can imagine that it would be on other’s lists if they gave it the time of day. The Hemet, California band was able to craft something that captured a sense of loneliness throughout You Thought You Were Cool and lands on this particular list while doing it.
7. Eidola- The Architect
A melodic experience full of so much passion, The Architect, by Salt Lake City-based post-hardcore quintet Eidola, will leave you absolutely speechless. As a whole album, The Architect is a brilliant example of Progressive Metal that has plenty of accessible moments for newcomers to the genre to appreciate, and this album can act as a diving off point for people to get further into heavier music, as it takes so much influence from other worlds of music, molding these ideas into something that is absolutely enthralling to listen to. With deep existential lyricism ruminating on ideas of religion, the vocal performance on this particular record is truly impressive. Yes, of course there are growls and screams, as you’d expect with any metal-adjacent record, but these moments of high intensity are matched with quieter arrangements throughout, and the dynamic range that occurs on The Architect really impressed me and kept me wanting more. If you’re anything like me and have been on the fence about ‘heavier’ music, but have curiosities about it, look no further than The Architect. It's much more than just a metal album, and there is so much technical experimentation throughout this album to get excited about.
6. The Night Flight Orchestra- Aeromantic II
Intergalactic rockers who call Sweden their earthly home, The Night Flight Orchestra are a callback to the past, an homage to the Album Oriented Rock groups of yesteryear. On paper, it sounds extremely cheesy, but somehow The Night Flight Orchestra are able to resurrect this sound and give it a new breath of life while keeping the elements that made the sound popular in the first place. This writer does not believe in guilty pleasures, because we like what we like for a reason, but, this is the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I have a guilty pleasure. These guys are bringing back the late 70’s- early 80s rock sound so effortlessly and I am here for it. I feel like I am flying on whatever spaceship this group is on, taking down aliens trying to overtake the earth, jamming out in the process. Aeromantic II is proof that any sound can be relevant in the current day if done properly and with the respect that it deserves.
5. Doran- Doran
The debut self-titled album by freak folk collective, Doran, feels less like an album and more like a ritualistic practice in which onlookers who were not invited will be killed for poking their heads into something that isn’t meant for them. Recorded in an attic in Rural Retreat, Virginia, (yes this is an actual town and not just a way to say they were on a rural retreat in Virginia, which is what I originally thought) the album contains so much mystery by way of the harmonies that are used throughout and the minimal instrumentation that occurs on these tracks. Doran creates their own mythology throughout the entirety of their album, while citing folklore from Eastern Europe, and Celtic folklore as inspirations for the overall sound that is realized on the album. Doran is an exercise in the idea of collaboration and seeing what sounds can be achieved when four immensely talented musicians put aside their own personal goals and focus on what is in front of them. Doran is the culmination of the ideas four people have and not just what one person wants to do. The end result is an album that feels like a cult-like ritual taking place out in the woods on a dark, eerie night.
4. Sloppy Jane- Madison
When you hear that an artist or group calls themselves Sloppy Jane, you probably expect their album to sound like a crusty punk record with some snark and attitude, right? Although this is where the group got their start, this is not what they go for on Madison. In fact, Madison is one of the most incredibly orchestrated Baroque Pop records in the past few years. As every single mention of this record on the internet will tell you, this album was recorded entirely in a cave in West Virginia, adding to the fullness of the orchestration. It’s an ambitious project that has so much reward, not only for the players on the record, but for the listener as well. The music is so tightly arranged and well thought out with pianos and strings adding to the richness of quality throughout. The cave ambiance is also everywhere on this album, whether that be the slight echo on each track or the intros of songs being water dripping on the ground of the cave. I appreciate these qualities because it proves that the idea was intentional and has thought surrounding it, because most artists would use the cave as a gimmick, but on Madison, the cave feels like another instrument, giving this album another level that it wouldn’t have had if it were recorded in a more traditional space.
3. Smol Data- Inconvenience Store
Long Island’s Karah Goldstien, the voice behind Smol Data, has crafted the soundtrack to life in your mid-twenties on her debut album Inconvenience Store. Loosely based on her experiences living and surrounding herself in the music community of Long Island, Inconvenience Store takes a look at life as someone in their mid-twenties, comparing themselves to the successes of others, and wondering what they personally are doing wrong. This could be a super sad and observational look at how life isn’t what Karah thought it would be. While there may be moments like this throughout the record, there is a certain tongue in cheek quality to all of the songs, adding a level of self awareness to Inconvenience Store. A culmination of 2000’s and 2010’s indie rock, Inconvenience Store is able to craft an experience in just over half an hour that is rooted in its predecessors, and uses their genius as a springboard for her own success. This album is something to be extremely proud of, and my only hope is that Smol Data realizes this and is extremely proud of what she was able to create and know that none of her peers could have done what she is able to do on Inconvenience Store.
2. (Eli)zabeth Owens- Knock Knock
Combining their classically trained background with more experimental and electronic qualities, Eli examines their past in a highly captivating way throughout Knock Knock. The album sees Eli traverse a deep set of topics, ranging from addiction, childhood trauma, and overall battles with their own mental health. Owens examines these things that they have dealt with on and off with a lens to the past; it's an examination in the ‘why’ portion of Eli’s life. Not only is the lyrical content ambitious for someone to share, but the overall sound that Eli achieves throughout the course of the album is impressive in its own right. Knock Knock is crafted to feel like it takes place in a fantasy woodland environment, far from civilization, but still feels like a personal and relatable experience. Knock Knock is an ambitious undertaking by an incredibly talented person that has gone wildly underlooked. Like many of these albums on this list, I am jealous of the person who gets to listen to this for the first time, because it is a truly breathtaking and unforgettable experience from front to back.
1. San Salvador- La Grande Folie
The Occitan language, according to the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages, is considered to be severely endangered. This means also that its music and culture as a whole is also in need of saving. Before I had the pleasure of listening to San Salvador, I had no idea this culture, which has roots in Southern France, Monaco, Spain, and Italy, even existed. San Salvador is keeping Occitan Folk Music alive, giving it a new found interest with their album La Grande Folie. Albums that take inspiration from the past and keep these elements while pushing what the style can be is no easy feat, but this album makes it feel absolutely effortless. This is a great album that pays respect to where it came from, while giving the music a breath of youthfulness in order to raise awareness to other people who have yet to learn about the Occitan language and its culture. It's an album that not only sounds incredibly rich, featuring 6 voices, with complex rhythm and harmony, but also blends Occitan folk music with moments that defy genre. La Grand Folie pays homage to where the members grew up and their performance is able to transcend the barrier that language sometimes puts up for people to appreciate certain styles of music.
tags: #2021music #2021 #2021albums #bestof #yearend #yearendlist #indie #alternative #musicreviews #Jexno #AdiKeshetCohen #Dobbeltgjenger #GenesisOwusu #NakedDays #AliciaWalter #dltzk #FeebleLittleHorse #Dreamwell #sunispoison #BlackCountryNewRoad #McKinleyDixon #audiobooks #GraveSaddles #Eidola #TheNightFlightOrchestra #Doran #SloppyJane #SmolData #ElizabethOwens #SanSalvador