Best Indie Rock Albums of 2021
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The 15 Best Indie Rock Albums of 2021

In 2021 indie rock was a guitar-led extravaganza with artists drawing from an ever-widening musical well. These are the 15 best indie rock albums of the year.

15 Pom Poko – Cheater [Bella Union]

Pom Poko - Cheater

On their first album, Birthday (2019), Pom Poko delighted in confounding expectations and taking their brazen sounds to giddy extremes. With Cheater, the band are essentially repeating the process with even more confidence. This is a group that doesn’t believe in coming up for air. Fortunately for the listener, their sound – best described as melodic punk with occasionally arty turns into stuttering prog and jazz – has an addictive quality, like a kind of musical sugar rush. Finishing off an album of maniacal, sugarcoated spikes with such a warm blanket of pop heaven is exactly the kind of thing Pom Poko would do. Just when you think you’re in for another delightful head-scratcher of a song, the group tuck you in and kiss you on the forehead. Here’s hoping this amazing band continue to be weird and fun. Predictability would never suit them. Chris Ingalls

14 Squirrel Flower – Planet (I) [Polyvinyl]

Squirrel Flower - Planet (I)

Squirrel Flower’s “Hurt a Fly” is one of a few tracks on Planet (i) that could have almost been on its predecessor, I Was Born Swimming. Ali Chant’s brief, stinging, and nearly atonal guitar solo is a joy to behold, and the song hangs on a simple, effortless vocal melody and delivery. It was a strong precursor to the album, and the great thing is that it’s not even the best track. Where I Was Born Swimming had its roots in indie/alt-rock, Planet (i) has a more pastoral feel. “Iowa 146” has a very Pink Moon era, Nick Drake approach, and is a very lovely thing indeed. On this tune, her voice sounds fragile and incredibly real. Maybe it’s because quarantine forced her into writing minimalist music, but her second album has a less strident feel than her debut. This approach certainly seems to suit her. Ian Rushbury

13 Kitner – Shake the Spins [Relief Map]

Kitner - Shake the Spins

Kitner, an under-the-radar band from Boston, offer a surprising mix of intimacy and inspiration on their debut record, Shake the Spins. Starting with “Hi-Fi Times”, an instrumental overture, Kitner build anticipation that is delightfully gratified in the familiar-sounding guitar riff of “Suddenly”. They’ve clearly studied the punk playbook — big hooks, gnarly riffs, fun buildups, intimate lyrics — and seem like they decided to start a band to give people what they themselves want to hear. “Henry Miller ’91” is a standout track, offering catharsis on both harmonized guitars and vocals. As the final track, “If There’s Anything Left”, plays, we get the feeling that there’s a lot of searching left for Kitner — I’m looking forward to exploring with them. Jeremy Levine

12 Deafheaven – Infinite Granite [Sargent House]

Deafheaven - Infinite Granite

Deafheaven’s black metal bona fides offer the group a grand scope of ambition, but the more melodic vocal approach on Infinite Granite creates a dynamic and exciting whole piece. The group’s well-worn interplay is displayed in tracks like “Great Mass of Color”, which relies on subtle changes in dynamic and groove to tell a musical story over a six-minute run-time. The slower breakdowns that the band explored on earlier albums are still present here but no longer serving the purpose of mere juxtaposition; now, they feel like organic outposts for a new set of questions. Album closer “Mombasa” is a meticulously layered glacier of a sound until finally sublimely breaking loose into the metal sound in the album’s last three minutes: a well-won apocalypse. Deafheaven are just a band that know how to play; they also know what they’re doing. Jeremy Levine

11 The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore [Atlantic]

The War on Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore

Don’t worry, because the War on Drugs still sound like one of America’s greatest rock bands on their excellently titled fifth album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Still perfectly adept at selling out arenas and inciting folks to punch the air. It’s just that they’ve abandoned many of their trademark features, like their motorik rhythms, hypnotic vibes, and epic guitar solos, in favor of pop songs that are altogether more compact, immediate, and direct. The main man Adam Granduciel still writes music that borders on overly earnest heartland rock, with lyrics that occasionally spill into the realm of Springsteenesque cliché. Still, the fact is he hits harder on an emotional level on this record than anything he’s ever done. Indeed, he delivers plentiful moments of intimate and transcendent beauty. 

It helps that Granduciel puts his quivering and ever more Dylanesque voice front and center of this set of ten tracks while consistently dwelling on the theme of transition and the passage of time. That’s no more so than on opener “Living Proof”, where he gently strums his guitar and softly sings: “I can’t recall what I believe in / I’m always changing.” He also questions whether life is “just dying in slow motion” on the stirring title track, with its “Bette Davis Eyes” riff bringing it a heightened level of poignancy. And of course, meticulous arranger that he is, Granduciel knows exactly where to place a choir, a church organ, a harmonica break, a burst of synthesizer, or a warped guitar solo, to really hit these striking songs home. — Adam Mason