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.

5 Goat Girl – On All Fours [Rough Trade]

Goat Girl – On All Fours

With On All Fours, South London post-punk band Goat Girl do more than fulfill the potential they showed on their 2018 debut. This is by way of darker and less exuberant songs than before, which merge ferocious guitars, futuristic electronics, and hypnotic harmonies with a heavy dose of environmental angst. Indeed, on this collection of 13 tracks, they prove to be a group who’ve found their sound and are now contemplating the big league (in indie terms, of course), to the interminable beat of the climate crisis. 

The scale of the quartet’s ambition and confidence is no more evident than on the astounding “Sad Cowboy”. This begins life in spacey synth territory reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, before some propulsive guitar work ushers in a rumbling rhythm, singer Clottie Cream’s wonderfully languid vocals on the theme of going insane (“Slippin’ my hold / It comes and it goes”), and, to finish, a synthy dance vibe worthy of Hot Chip. It’s how Goat Girl so effortlessly mix such seemingly discordant styles that makes this album so exciting. An intense rock groove meets a mournful chorus on the post-apocalyptic “The Crack”. A ridiculously bouncy tune meets a massive instrumental freak-out that sounds like the end of the world on “Badibaba”. Hell, the negative effect of environmental catastrophe on the human spirit never sounded so exhilarating. — Adam Mason

4 Julien Baker – Little Oblivions [Matador]

Julien Baker - Little Oblivions

Fronting a band for the first time since her solo career began, Julien Baker‘s music remains as unflinchingly honest as it has ever been. Her newfound sonic diversity allows her to create new settings for each song; she does not use the extra instruments to accent the buildup/release format that she favored on Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights. She creates a new world altogether. “Crying Wolf”, for example, offers a disorienting guitar anti-solo that would never have been possible on her previous efforts, but that defines the track’s desperate search for clarity. Lyrically, she’s moving away from the devastating declarations of her earlier work to a bewildering set of questions of herself, of others, and of God — leaving us feeling more lost than we ever have after hearing her voice. — Jeremy Levine

3 IDLES – Crawler [Partisan]

IDLES - Crawler

CRAWLER opens up on Joe Talbot in the cold of February, droning over an increasingly menacing guitar track. By the song’s end, he’s repeated asking whether we’re ready for the storm and, truthfully, not much can get you prepared for what IDLES put out on this release. Sometimes hilarious and consistently dire, CRAWLER is a tour through a vast tapestry of sounds and attitudes, leading to one of those albums that feels more geographic than sonic. There’s an austere three-four groove in “The Beachland Ballroom”, the thrashing dance-punk of “The Wheel”, the baffling track “Progress” that starts with a hazy twinkle and ends in a fuzzed-out abyss. CRAWLER‘s always-shifting labyrinth is not only an aesthetic achievement — it’s also able to map the emotion of two fraught years. — Jeremy Levine

2 Snail Mail – Valentine [Rough Trade]

Snail Mail - Valentine

Singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan, under the banner of Snail Mail, found initial success in 2018 with loud, deftly played guitar songs like “Heat Wave” and “Pristine”, which combined lo-fi production, emotional vocals, and soul-baring lyrics. Yet on her second album, Valentine, she’s recorded only two or three songs that easily qualify as “indie-rock”. That’s because she’s already striving, at age 22, to be a classic songwriter in the mold of Jenny Lewis, working hard to marry her whispery voice and confessional lyrics to any sound she sees fit, from indie-folk to R&B to string ballad. And you know what? She’s succeeding. 

The evidence is Jordan getting a hell of a lot off her chest on ten stylistically diverse and compelling songs on such subjects as the downside of her newfound fame, her unlucky love life, and her stay in rehab. She rocks out intensely on both the title track and “Glory”, the former possessing the mother of all hooks in the line “So why’d wanna erase me, darling valentine?” and the latter proving to be a wonderful slice of shoegaze with its sinister “get me high in your hotel room” sense of surrender. Then there’s the darkly synth-driven “Ben Franklin”, the floaty dream-pop of “Forever (Sailing)”, and one of the most delicate and sad expressions of eternal love you’re ever likely to hear in “Mia”. — Adam Mason

1 Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under [Polydor]

Sam Fender - Seventeen Going Under

Sam Fender‘s second album, Seventeen Going Under, is precisely the kind of rousing and inspired record to send the shoegazing masses packing. Right from the off, it’s bold, urgent, ambitious, and utterly distinctive. Yes, Fender takes an obvious cue from Born to Run-era Bruce Springsteen, but he applies his big, anthemic, saxophone-soaked sound to his own working-class upbringing in North Shields in the post-industrial dockland of northeast England.

Therefore, in his impassioned and angry Tyneside tones, he applies a narrative drive to the album while taking the listener to many bleak and hopeless places that only marginalized northern lads know about. Indeed, it’s the sharp autobiographical details in the lyrics that really make it. “The fistfights on the beach.” Being “drenched in cheap drink and snide fags”. His mother “floored by the letters and the council rigmarole”. These combined with some majorly arresting lines: “I’m not a fucking anything or anyone!” Good tunes to boot! — Adam Mason