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.

5. Gruff Rhys – Seeking New Gods [Rough Trade]

Gruff Rhys - Seeking New Gods

Since going solo, former Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys has carved out a distinct niche for himself, as every album he creates exists in its own beautifully weird genre pocket. Each release is eccentric in its own way, and while Seeking New Gods is inherently a rock concept album about the life of the active volcano Mount Paeku, the songs themselves feel like a breakthrough. As a songwriter who is both cerebral and quirky, his concepts sometimes only penetrated his hardcore fans, but Seeking New Gods shows us a whole new side of Rhys, one that is warm, accessible, and downright rocking. Tracks like thundering “Hiking in Lightning” and the ambling shuffle of “Loan Your Loneliness” contain some of the stickiest hooks he’s ever penned, full-stop. Rhys’ creativity is erupting with some of the best songs of his career in making an album about a volcano. – Evan Sawdey

4. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams [Transgressive]

Arlo Parks - Collapsed in Sunbeams

Arlo Parks brushes Collapsed in Sunbeams‘ lounge pop sheen with plaintive maxims—”Wouldn’t it be nice to feel something for once?”, “Why do we make the simplest things so hard?”. The British songwriter’s debut not only won the Mercury Prize but won over the trip-hoppers, funk lovers, and even the Championship Vinyl elitists. Its conversational tone and warm instrumentation gave us hope for brighter things ahead back in the dark winter of January, while its pervasive melancholia showed it wasn’t trying to fool anyone into believing that everything is fine. It never was, and it never will be—this is a world in which “Black Dog” and “Hope” co-exist—but wouldn’t you rather collapse in sunbeams than in a pit of despair?Hayden Merrick

3. Illuminati Hotties – Let Me Do One More [Snack Shack Tracks]

Illuminati Hotties - Let Me Do One More

Sarah Tudzin plays Pat-a-Cake with her evil twin on her second proper album, hopping back and forth between gregariously glib geek-speak and tender introspection. Tudzin is so confident in her abilities and adept at her craft. She window-shops through a mall of emotions and moods, providing an album that you can listen to while crying and writing in your journal but one that contains plenty of house party-ready tracks, too. The punchy verve of the album’s lead singles “Pool Hopping” and “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”—which, alone, qualify the record for greatness—at first overshadow the album’s gooey center, the more earnest tracks like “Growth” and “The Sway”. It’s in the latter songs that Let Me Do One More‘s gravitational pull is found, and these make the album particularly special. Hayden Merrick

2. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend [Dirty Hit]

Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend

London-based Wolf Alice’s third full-length, the Mercury Prize-shortlisted Blue Weekend, arrived just in time to score a post-pandemic summer of freedom. Between the love letter to Los Angeles hedonism “Delicious Things” and the satirically prudent “Play the Greatest Hits”, the band vacillate between fuck you and hushed heartache. Songs such as the unhurried “Safe From Heartbreak” feature little more than a percussive guitar riff and the choir of Ellie Roswell, while “Smile” is a rocky barrage of wide-mouthed delirium. Mostly, the Pumpkins-inspired guitar fuzz of preceding releases is subjugated by creamy string arrangements and arena-filling vocal harmonies, catapulting the band to legendary status in the UK and raising their presence overseas, with a sold-out North American tour in November 2021. It’s the sound of a band exuding confidence as they hit their stride. Hayden Merrick

1. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee [Dead Oceans]

Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee

More than Biden, Travis & Kourtney, or SpaceX, Michelle Zauner owned 2021. Not only did her memoir Crying in H Mart make it to the New York Times best-seller list with a film adaptation already locked in, but her third full-length as Japanese Breakfast was, with a jubilant bullet, the finest indie-pop record of the year. In a conscious break from 2017’s Soft Sounds, Jubilee celebrates, not despairs. The food-lover espouses orchestral pop and, well, happiness, leaving an end product that’s as triumphant as its title, with monarchical horns, cascading strings, and her beautifully melancholic voice atop it all.

Whether Zauner is exploring her unashamed desires (“Posing in Bondage”) or reflecting on love in the time of flyover (“Kokomo, IN”), the whole record is gorgeous, fragrant, and washes over you with an elysian unease. There is still plenty of unease, anxiety, and unfulfilled desire that comes with Zauner’s take on happiness (that’s just the way we like it). If I could arm myself against 2022 with only one record from this year, it would be this. Hayden Merrick