best indie pop 2021
Photo: Jason Leung on Unsplash

The 15 Best Indie Pop Albums of 2021

In 2021, indie pop had the job of scoring the world’s reopening, marrying joy and uncertainty. From Wolf Alice to Illuminati Hotties, these albums got the gold.

10. Caroline Kingsbury – Heaven’s Just a Flight [Fortune Tellers]

Caroline Kingsbury - Heaven's Just a Flight

In a very short amount of time, Caroline Kingsbury was dealing with a multitude of traumas. She moved out to Hollywood on her own, getting away from a religious family while exploring her queer identity. Kingsbury was often broke, then went on tour with her band, only to get back home and discover her brother was passing away from cancer. It’s been a difficult journey for her, so on her debut full-length Heaven’s Just a Flight, she powers through by gussying up her pain in every ’80s pop cliché you can name. The title track uses comical Dennis DeYoung-styled backing vocals to mask up lyrics about getting intoxicated to escape her pain, just as how the chugging shiny guitar strums of “Lose” accentuate her intense feelings of isolation. Deep-seated emotions are lurking in the shadows of the monster synth hooks Kingsbury serves us, making Heaven’s Just a Flight one of the best debut albums the year had to offer. – Evan Sawdey


9. Kiwi Jr. – Cooler Returns [Sub Pop]

Kiwi Jr - Cooler Returns

Once upon a time, four childhood friends and hockey buds left their sleepy Prince Edward Island hamlet for Toronto. Kiwi Jr.—named for their love of New Zealand’s Dunedin/Flying Nun sound—take the jangliest of guitars and dribble enigmatic observations all over them. The fragments include musings on the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jack the Ripper, bad tattoos of the past, gentrification, and undercover cops, which singer Jeremy Gaudet delivers with a Malkmus-esque learned insouciance. Cooler Returns is the Candian antidote to the post-Trump era: light-hearted and exhilarating enough to make you stop caring and too catchy for its own good. If not for the pandemic’s arrival just as the band was getting going, I suspect there’d be many more bright-red Cooler Returns T-shirts worn by Rough Trade patrons. If you like your Pavement sunny side up, look ye no further. Hayden Merrick


8. Lizzie Loveless – You Don’t Know [Egghunt Records]

Lizzie Loveless - You Don't Know

With Lizzie Loveless working alongside multi-instrumentalist Miles Francis, You Don’t Know is like a ten-song sampler of sophisticated, layered pop. Each track veers off into slightly different sonic territory while remaining remarkably cogent and consistent. The title track is a seductive, dreamlike ballad, delivered in a tender waltz time signature with woozy synth bass countering Loveless’ aching vocal delivery. “So don’t put your arms around me,” she sings, “If all you’re gonna do is say goodbye.” If the rest of the album was just more shimmering retro ballads, You Don’t Know would still be a great album. But it’s delightfully all over the place. While You Don’t Know contains a great deal of unusual, seemingly incongruous arrangements and intergalactic synth squalls, Loveless can’t resist the pull of an excellent hip-shaking beat and some soulful crooning. – Chris Ingalls


7. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time [Marathon Artists]

Courtney Barnett - Things Take Time

Slackers work hard to sound like they aren’t trying. Courtney Barnett sounds like she cares—her music has innate depth—but you can tell it comes easy, as though she could write a song over a bowl of cereal while brushing sleep out of her eyes. Breezy, friendly, and contended, Things Take Time, Take Time may not be Barnett’s most ambitious or even her best record, but it’s reliable and archetypally nice. The cuddly second single, “Before You Gotta Go”, demonstrates her imperturbable approach to life as she takes a disagreement with her partner and turns it into some of the kindest words ever put to plucking guitars. The self-help song titles—”Take it Day by Day”, “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To”—easily eschew banality; instead, they remind us of salient checkpoints. This is a record that grounds you, slows you down, and makes you appreciate that things take time. Hayden Merrick


6. Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny haha [Secretly Canadian]

Faye Webster - I Know I’m Funny haha

To laugh in the face of calamity is to transcend all the stumbling blocks that 2021 dished out. Faye Webster is genuinely funny but also genuinely miserable, somehow self-assured yet meek. And it’s on her fourth album that she offers her most unhurried yet neurotic collection of songs, all of which are imbued with her alt-country propensity. Webster soaks her feet in a puddle of worry, facetiously examining her relationship woes and muttering rhetorical questions into her sparkling arrangements. Jazzy chords and piano twinkles lounge their way across “In a Good Way”, while the title track’s slow groove is enhanced by shimmering lap steel. “Better Distractions” was even endorsed by Barack Obama, and he knows a thing or two about staying calm under pressure. Hayden Merrick

FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES
PopMatters