The Fire Note Writer Edition Top Albums of 2021

The Fire Note would not be possible without the talented writers that share their educated thoughts and true enjoyment of music with our readers. The time and commitment that goes into writing consistently is appreciated by TFN and taken for granted by everyone else!

Our official year end Top 50 is coming at the end of the week but clearly everyone has different tastes and ideas when naming the best albums released in 2021. Thanks again to all our contributors and check out their thoughts below!

We also are always up for some new voices so if you want to be on this list next year send us an email to [email protected] with your interest in receiving advance music and sharing your voice!

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Thomas Wilde

  1. Spirit Was – Heaven’s Just A Cloud
  2. Turnstile – Glow On
  3. L’Rain – Fatigue
  4. Cheekface – Emphatically No.
  5. Pardoner – Come Down Different
  6. Aeon Station – Observatory
  7. Illuminati Hotties – Let Me Do One More
  8. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
  9. Guided By Voices – Earth Man Blues
  10. Porto Geese – Duck
  11. Psychic Flowers – For The Undertow
  12. Velvet Starlings – Technicolour Shakedown
  13. The Martha’s Vineyard Ferries – Suns Out Guns Out
  14. The Beavis Frond – Little Eden
  15. Spirit Of The Beehive – Entertainment Death
  16. Jackson Reid Briggs and The Heaters ‎– Waiting In A Corner
  17. Ty Segall – Harmonizer
  18. Beachy Head – Beachy Head
  19. Ducks Ltd. – Modern Fiction
  20. Fake Fruit – Fake Fruit
  21. Wine Lips – Mushroom Death Sex Bummer Party
  22. Amyl And The Sniffers – Comfort To Me
  23. The Fragiles – On And On
  24. Springtime – Springtime
  25. Trace Mountains – House Of Confusion

Brian Q. Newcomb

25. Too Much Joy: Mistakes Were Made

There’s something about living through a pandemic for two years and a new viral variant on the horizon, that makes an apocalyptic power pop/punk rock album that as clever as it is punchy not just an amusing pastime, but essential survival rations. Too Much Joy’s “Mistakes Were Made” arrived 30 years after their breakthrough 1991 release, “Cereal Killers,” so there’s certainly a retro quality here, but I’m pretty sure we could all use the “Blinding Light of Love.”

24. Parquet Courts: Sympathy For Life

For some reason, when I hear the New York indie rock band Parquet Courts, I often mistake them as Brit-pop, mixing new wave influences with crunchy guitar punk. But here on their 8th album in just over a decade, I hear more Talking Heads and CBCB punk influences in songs like “Walking at a Downtown Pace” and “Homo Sapien.” Elsewhere the dabble in psychedelic and funk, and even psychedelic funk. This band has always grabbed my attention, with its clever songwriting and experimental spirit and this year, this one really stuck out.

23. illuminati hotties: Let Me Do One More

When Sarah Tudzin named her 2020 mixtape “Free I.H.: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For, she seemed to suggest that the next one, this one, would be all that and a bag o’ chips. And it certainly is. In “MMMOOOAAAAAYA” Tudzin laughs that “I guess I’m too fun/I guess I’m too funny.” And while she does at times she does a convincing imitation of the Go-Go’s for the new millennia, but she also shifts gears and tries on a variety of sonic vibes that more than demonstrate her recording engineer and production chops, including some ripping guitar sounds. There’s a lot more going on here than the goofy name leads one to believe.

22. Cheap Trick: In Another World

There’s little doubt that guitarist Rick Nielsen and singer Robin Zander have got it down to a science, a simple alchemy of mixing Beatlesque melodies with hard rock guitar heroics, that turned classics like “Surrender” and “I Want You To Want Me” into solid gold. The formula is not rocket science, but somehow a band that could make a fine living on the “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame” circuit just playing those two songs over and over again, and somehow still manage to make new records we want to care about, like “Rockford” in ’06, and this one which arrived just in time to announce that “Here Comes Summer.”

21. John Hiatt with Jerry Douglas Band: Leftover Feelings

By the time I truly discovered John Hiatt on 1987’s “Bring the Family,” backed by a killer band that included Ry Cooder on guitar and the dream team rhythm section of Nick Lowe on bass and Jim Keltner of drums, he’d already had a decent career as a killer songwriter and performer and drowned it in liquor. The record redeemed him with 10 songs that are sweet as Cooder’s slide guitar, and as dark, moody and honest as it gets. Four more good albums and associated tours followed, lifting his real estate value in the aging “adult alternative” and burgeoning Americana markets. Always are reliable crafter of good songs, Hiatt has stayed at his art, exploring folk and blues and he’s consistently listenable. But, sometimes you just need a good band to a sweet guitar sound to kick it up to the next level. Enter Jerry Douglas, he of the resonator, lap steel guitar, who’s played with more country artists than I care to name, along with Alison Krauss, Paul Simon, T Bone Burnett’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, and Elvis Costello’s “Sugar Canes.” Hiatt is in strong form here, as the two play off each other to lovely effect, it’s world class folk music with hints of bluegrass, and in “Long Black Electric Cadillac,” “Mississippi Phone Booth” and “Little Goodnight,” they rock & roll.

20. Indigo De Souza: Any Shape You Take

Indigo De Souza is a singer/songwriter from Asheville, N.C., who uses the time honored folk/rock form to share her deepest feeling, observations, and insights in personal, often confessional lyrics. Whether it involves letting her voice emote through the up and down experiences of a “Bad Dream” to the light funky pop of “Hold U,” a song of assurance, or turning auto-tune into an instrument to embody youthfulness in “17,” she’s all in. This is her second album, but her wide-ranging mastery, including what some have described as a “masterful slice of grunge pop,” lead me to expect we’re going to be hearing a whole lot more from Indigo De Souza.

19. James: All The Colours Of You

To be honest, after enjoying the daylights out of the Brit-pop band James in the 90’s in the wake of their fun hit album, “Laid,” but since then they’ve kept recording and touring mostly in Europe and it was out of sight, out of mind. So, hearing this big, bold electro-pop/dance rock album at this late date was one of the summer. Tim Booth’s fluid, high tenor voice is as strong and melodic as ever, and as before their subject matter is ripped from the headlines. The title track is in lock down (“Quarantine with you/Our world’s a private zoo”), before taking a cold look at the American political scene due to the impact of the previous resident of the White House: “Who’s more woke than who/who’s more broke than who/Disunited States/They want to boogaloo with you/He’s the Ku Klux Klan… K coup, K coup, K coup/Preident’s your man/He’s the Ku Klux Klan.” That theme is echoed in “Miss America,” otherwise much of “All the Colors of You,” celebrates a diverse humanity and the hippie 60’s values of “peace & love,” in up-tempo tracks, James has turned itself into the dance band for the apocalypse.

18. Courtney Barnett: Things Take Time, Take Time

On her third solo album, Aussie guitar rocker Courtney Barnett continues to map out her unique perspective in songs that find her working to “Take It Day By Day,” while in the jangling pop rock of “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To,” she is wondering about the deeper meaning of existence. Barnett’s songs are earthy, smart rockers that reflect her goal to get by in spite of the fact that “live is like a rollercoaster.” It’s an album about how if we can “put one foot in front of the other,” we don’t have to “give up just yet.” Some days, we’re just marking time, and these songs inspire keeping on keeping on.

17. Aaron Lee Tasjan: Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!

On his triple self-referential album, Aaron Lee Tasjan answers the question where will artists influenced by the great pop rock songwriters of the 60’s and 70’s likely to take the genre in the days ahead. While there’s a Beach Boys feel to the harmonies on the opening, “Sunday Woman,” the melody of “Computer of Love” has a melody that recalls hit maker Harry Nilsson, while the acoustic folk of “Another Lonely Day” sounds like Stephen Stills or the Beatles’. Tasjan’s songs mix organic with synths, managing to tap retro vibes while declaring his own fresh take on modern pop. In “Feminine Walk” he name drops gender-bending rock icons like “Bowie, Bolan, Jagger too/Grace Jones, Joan Jett, and Too Wong Foo,” while “Dada Bois” is again shaped by Brian Wilson’s big California harmonies, proving he’s got it in him to take the influences in any direction that suits him, which makes this a great listen.

16. Brandi Carlile: In These Silent Days

When I first heard Brandi Carlile open for the Indigo Girls way back in the 00’s, there was no doubt she had a lovely voice, but there were few signs she’d grasped the power of telling “The Story.” She got my attention big time in 2019, when performing her song “The Joke” on the Grammy’s, when the emotion in her voice grabbed any listener who was paying attention. Like many more, I purchased that album on the spot, and shortly after seeing her play songs from this new one on Saturday Night Live, I scooped it up. Carlile taps all the best qualities of traditional country songwriting, and taps enough rock & roll influences here and there to suggest she could have turned a song like “Broken Horses” into a full blown rock anthem if she had the inclination. Her songs ring true, and her voice continues to thrill.

15. The Weather Station: Ignorance

Canadian singer/songwriter Tamara Lindeman leads her band The Weather Station leads her band through some sophisticated band arrangements that recall the mature, later recordings of Joni Mitchell, when she was mixing folk with jazz, constructing larger, lush orchestrations. In a series of songs that reflect Lindeman’s ecological concerns, she creates evocative musical landscapes that use keys, guitars, strings, sax, clarinets and flute to bring her musical vision to life. The result is a rich and rewarding listen.

14. Guided By Voices: Earth Man Blues & It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them.

You can’t live in Dayton, Ohio, or hang around The Fire Note and not pick up an appreciation for Guided By Voices, and this year Robert Pollard & Co. delivered not one, but two full-length outings, each containing 15 new, fun, often experimental pub rock tracks. These midwestern rockers deliver the kind of guitar-driven rock and roll essentials that you’d expect to be hearing from The Who if Pete Townshend hadn’t fallen in love with his Moog synthesizer and decided that “rock operas” are a thing. Pollard’s prolific imagination works with operatic drama, but scales it into a 2 and a half minute rock out reflection on everything that grabs his attention from one minute to the next… “Ant Repellent” here, and the guy who’s the “Maintenance Man of the Haunted House” there. The result is no fluff, back-to-basics rock and roll, that won’t let you down. I had the pleasure to catch GBV for the third time shortly after moving to Dayton at a St. Patrick’s Day gig at an Oregon district pub, and there’s something tangibly great at work in their sturdy consistency. I’d say maybe there was something in the local water, but I’m pretty sure it’s the beer.

13. Todd Snider: First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder

I have a standing Sunday morning gig that requires all of my attention, so late in the first year of the pandemic, Nashville folk/rock singer-songwriter Todd Snider started doing Sunday morning live streamed solo concerts, where according to his website he planned to perform each of his past albums. These alternative “religious” gatherings took on the name “First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder,” which in time inspired a new batch of songs, and Snider’s new album. As is Snider’s want, some of the songs take the air out of any number of religious helium balloons, for fun and profit (or if you take these criticisms of organized religion to heart, the poet may also be a prophet, but I jest). While Snider has said he long has desired to produce a convincing funk and folk amalgam, he finally nails it here on “First Agnostic Church,” first by taking a less is more approach that relies on drummer Robbie Crowell to lay down the desired beat, then builds the songs around it, Snider playing most of the instruments, and many of the backing vocals one overdub after another. We watched a lot of Netflix from the couch while shut down for the pandemic, Todd Snider made an pretty great album of fun, funky songs. The record opens with a couple of Gospel numbers extolling the good news of freedom in “Turn Me Loose (I’ll Never Be the Same),” and the joy of community in “The Get Together.” By the end of the album, he’s re-thinking his responsibilities in the “Agnostic Preacher’s Lament,” and then contemplates a “The Resignation vs. The Comeback,” but the jury is still out if there’ll be a “Second Church…” But it’s not all just fun, Snider offers a bit of ecological activism in “That Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” and writes a personal eulogy to the late, great John Prine (“Handsome John”), while another song of fare thee well is Snider’s tribute to Jeff Austin, Neal Casal, and even mentions the late Col. Bruce Hampton elsewhere. Obviously, these lives of ours matter enough to Snider, whatever he’s come to believe that much is true, as well as the fact that music binds us together in important, meaningful ways.

12. Son Volt: Electro Melodier

I’ve been a fan of Jay Farrar’s songwriting going all the way back to his days in Uncle Tupelo, which means I’ve heard every record he’s released over the last 30 years, and I think this is one of his career best. On “Electro Melodier” far plays some of the punchiest guitar rock he’s delivered since 1998’s “Wide Swing Tremolo,” with songs like “The Globe” and “Arkey Blue” echoing early days when Farrar was being egged on by UT’s auxiliary guitar guy and future Bottle Rocket leader Brian Henneman. But this album is also the best of both worlds, as these are some of the strongest melodies and best songwriting that he’s put out in some years. And smartly in songs like “Living in the U.S.A,,” “These Are the Times,” “Like You,” and elsewhere Farrar puts his political interests in songs that connect viscerally with the everyday lives and concerns of the folk in his audience. With the added emotional punch of touching songs about his wife and family, “Diamonds and Cigarettes” and “Lucky Ones,” and this is a great one.

11. Allison Russell: Outside Child

The first time I heard the songs on this album, Allison Russell performed them live on the somewhat fragile stage in the large circus tent that was the main venue for Over the Rhine’s Nowhere Else Festival over Labor Day weekend. I had only seen Russell sing a few years back as part of the band she leads with her husband, The Birds of Chicago, so I was expecting the big band, soulful rock anthems her partner JT Nero tended to write for her to sing. On that day she was supported only by a guitarist, and two female soloists to added background vocals, and her own instruments of choice, the banjo and clarinet, and her own unique singing voice. Even hearing it live for the first time, it was obvious the artist’s deeply personal story of growing up in an abusive family, taking to the streets, and the hard life that met her there, to her ultimate redemption, overcoming any obstacles and scars she’d developed as she coped with all life had trust upon her. While her album fleshes out the instrumentals with a full band, the story of Russell’s pursuit of “my deliverance.” In the end, it’s a story of a “survivor’s joy,” and it’s both as musically satisfying as her story is inspiring. Russell’s musical roots are deep in folk, gospel and blues, soul, and her instincts are artful and authentic. She’s entirely believable, and the real thing. And, I’ll never count the clarinet out as a pop/rock soloing instrument again.

10. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raising The Room

The reunion of Led Zep singer Robert Plant and bluegrass diva Alison Krauss and producer T Bone Burnett some 14 years after their breakout success, “Raising Sand,” has everything going for it that the original offered, but brims over with increased confidence, and more rock spirit in the rockabilly feel of “Can’t Let Go,” the driving rhythm of “Trouble With My Lover,” and the Plant/Burnett original “High and Lonesome,” which harnesses some of that acoustic power from Zeppelin “III.” Krauss and Plant take do more solo vocals on the verses, but the magic comes into play when the combine for harmonies that feel as natural as breathing yet feel haunted and simmering with energy at the same time. They are backed by Burnett’s usual corral of great guitarists and studio players, which work with the vocals to create a vibe that is rootsy and classic, and current at the same time.

9. The Mountain Goats: Dark In Here

You might be tempted to think of The Mountain Goats as a band primarily for highly literate nerds, given John Darnielle’s habit of writing an album’s worth of tunes around a single topic of interest, like 80’s goth rock culture, professional wrestling, and fantasy fiction rooted in stories like those from Dungeons & Dragons, but I’ve been a fan for years and some find me barely literate and not committed enough to be considered OCD. But seriously, in addition to writing songs that are intellectually challenging and often hilarious at the same time about subjects like those on this album: “The Destruction of the Superdeep Kola Borehole Tower,” or “The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums.” So not only does Darnielle follow up a great line about wearing a “Lizard Suit” to a party, with the perfect line that “It’s so hard to get noticed in this town,” with a lovely jazz pop melody, but his band is always ready with just the right musical accompaniment, whether it’s a rocking guitar solo, or something more gentle and flowing. This collection, much like last year’s “Getting Into Knives,” are so smart, fun, and musically satisfying that this band deserves a much larger following, even if it ruins their status as a cult.

8. Sleater-Kinney: Path Of Wellness

In my humble opinion some folk find it too easy to look at a former punk rock act whose mature, grown musically, and evolved and think “sell out,” as if anyone’s ever felt bad about attracting a larger audience or selling out a venue. Like lots of other bands who’ve been around long enough to have a complicated history, and over the course of ten albums work to stretch artistically while trying new things on for size, Sleater-Kinney have more than their share of detractors, again IMHO. But I liked the energy and vitriol in the early albums, I’ve enjoyed side projects like the TV comedy show “Portlandia” and the collaboration with Peter Buck & Co. in Filthy Friends, I thought it was interested when they turned to St. Vincent to produce the last one, and how here with the departure of their long-time drummer, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker have stepped up to self-produce a record that both leans on previous strengths and explores new possibilities. As such, “Path of Wellness” feels like a grown up album, where a funky number like “Worry With You,” suggests they’re not afraid to take some chances as long as they have each other. Talk about your “Complex Female Characters.” My one regret, is that I didn’t get to hear them play these songs on the road with Wilco, who I caught one day after their co-headline tour ended.

7. Jackson Browne: Downhill From Everywhere

One of the biggest surprises of the summer was that after waiting a year to see the postponed James Taylor tour with longtime friend, Jackson Browne had given the co-writer of the Eagles’ hit, “Take It Easy,” the chance to record a new album. In his popular heyday when he was producing albums like “Late For the Sky,” “The Pretender,” and the classic love-letter to touring on the road, “Running On Empty,” Browne was best known perhaps by literate, sad ballads like “Fountain of Sorrow” (I’m not crying, you’re crying), but there were rockers too, and any time he had David Lindley playing slide guitar it was golden. Now it’s been a long time since I heard anything new from Browne that was as potent, poignant and musically satisfying as he is here on “Downhill From Everywhere.” Whether it’s the great pop rock feel of “My Cleveland Heart,” his tender duet with Leslie Mendelson on “A Human Touch” or big environmental statements like the title track about pollution destroying the sanctity of our oceans, or the prophetic witness of “Until Justice Is Real,” Browne is back, and in great voice and form.

6. The War On Drugs: I Don’t Live Here Anymore

I’m pretty certain that this War on Drugs was one of the most anticipated rock albums of the year, and by all accounts it has met expectations. Singer/songwriter and guitarist Granduciel is notorious as a stickler who plays attention to detail so it’s no surprise that the album’s seamless production, soaring guitars, atmospheric vocals and arrangements feels so familiar and comfortable. Songs like “Changes,” “Living Proof,” the title track and “I Don’t Wanna Wait” are custom built for what we used to call “Album Oriented Rock” tastes, with singles expected to rise to the top of the FM charts. So far so good. I should also say, though, that I expected this album to be vying for the top spot on my list, and while it’s reliable, it’s also pretty predictable, the expected follow-up to great albums like “Lost in the Dream” and “A Deeper Understanding.” And to be clear, I dig listening to “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” but it does leave me with the nagging question what if U2 had followed “The Joshua Tree” with a similar sounding “Volume II?” If anybody asked me, I’d suggest Granduciel start work on his “Achtung, Baby.”

5. Julien Baker: Little Oblivions

Of the trio of female artists that make up the so-called supergroup, boygenius, Phoebe Bridgers appears to have gotten the most mileage in the musical mainstream. But this deeply personal, third album from Julien Baker goes a long way toward lifting her out of the shadows. Baker is joined by Bridgers and their third member, Lucy Dacus, on harmony vocals for the chorus of her song “Favor,” but its her evocative vocals, the thoughtful way she dissects personal issues like addiction, sobriety, and her childhood religious indoctrination, and the more expansive musical arrangements here that suggest this is a next level record for this fine female singer/songwriter.

4. Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime

The most exciting rock guitar sounds this year come from the “desert blues” of this native of the country of Niger, in Northern Africa. His soloing rings out with bold clarity and the kind of excitement we tend to associate with a guitarist of the stature of Jimi Hendrix. That he plays in the organic music of his homeland, it’s authentic and genuinely compelling polyrhythms, and sings in his native language, Tuareg, not only adds to the cross-cultural joy of find a record with such amazing music, but is educational in the best sense of the word. We need more of this, we need more from Mdou Moctar.

3. The Choir: Deep Cuts

Okay, it’s no surprise I’m a fan of the band The Choir, currently out of Nashville. I’ve been following their career since their first recordings as Youth Choir, and watched them survive losing record deals, the death of their beloved bass player Tim Chandler, divorces, all the usual ups & downs, you name it. And honestly, if you were to ask me which albums were their best, my first response would be a string of releases in the late ““Kissers & Killers.” – as while I’d continued to listen into their new albums in 2000s, and caught them live whenever possible, I kind of assumed their greatest artistic efforts were behind them. And, I’m one of their friends. But 2014’s “Shadow Weaver” had songs like “What You Think I Am,” “White Knuckles” and more that really demanded to be heard. Same with their 2018 release, “Bloodshot.” But, “Deep Cuts” which sounded like an album of oldies and b-sides has knocked me on my ass. It’s taken the production values up another notch, Derri Daugherty’s vocals bristle with vitality, and his atmospheric guitar sounds feel vibrant and emotional, Hindalong’s drum sounds rock with an intensity when appropriate and settle into smart groove often, Dan Michaels’ sax and lyricon samples add to the general spirit… and this is as solid a collection of good songs as any album I’ve heard this year. Cheers, boys! I honestly didn’t know if you had it in you to keep working at this level, but it makes me excited for what’s still to come.

2. St. Vincent: Daddy’s Home

At this point, I’m pretty much a sucker for Ms. Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, who categorically refuses to make the same album twice. Her 2017 release, “Masseducation,” topped my list for that year, and here she’s gone in a delightful retro direction, dipping her toes into her father’s record collection from the 70’s, putting her own spin on the funky, R&B flavored songs of that era, think Steely Dan meets the Isley Bros. with the Pointer Sisters singing harmony bgvs. St. Vincent tends to create albums conceptually, so the narrative here centers around the release of her father from prison after serving time for financial fraud, and St. Vincent’s attempts to blend in with the workaday world. She saunters through “Pay Your Way in Pain,” hits the streets in “Down,” and goes psychedelic on “Melting of the Sun.” There are great individual songs here, but the sum is truly greater than the individual parts, as she more than illustrated in her live show based on the album, with smart additions from her previous albums, updated, or should I say retro-dated for her 70’s feel. And as always, St. Vincent is a serious guitar talent, one more piece of a well-rounded conceptual artist and all around great musician.

1. Manchester Orchestra: The Million Masks Of God

Coming four years after their fine 2017 release, “A Black Mile to the Surface,” Atlanta-based Manchester Orchestra have taken a huge step sonically on “The Million Masks of God,” a deeply personal reckoning on the experience of the death of some loved ones, and the large questions that arise from such a loss, and what that says about the meaning of life for the living. While they take the album’s title from an early poem by G. K. Chesterton, and are dealing with a somber subject matter, this is not a sad or maudlin sounding album, as they bring their questions forward in some of the most aggressive and compelling rock songs of their over 15 year career, if cinematic in scope. The rhythm section of Tim Very and Andy Price lock into each rocker grounding it securely, while Andy Hull’s soaring vocals take flight, and Robert McDowell’s grinding guitars cut through the lush orchestrations and keyboard textures to express the underlying angst and edginess at the heart of these songs. Again here, the impact of the whole and the sum of the parts make a large creative statement, but strong singles like “Bed Head” and “Keel Timing” have the compelling vocal hooks to pull the listener in, while more gentle and prodding songs like “Let It Storm” and “Way Back” allow acoustic guitars to ease one’s spirit into a quiet acceptance. The album works together powerfully, which made it the most compelling listen of the last year for me.

Christopher Tahy

25. Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon
24. Night Beats – Outlaw R&B
23. The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
22. Monolord – Your Time To Shine
21. Ryley Walker – Course In Fable
20. Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future
19. Turnstile – GLOW ON
18. Acid Dad – Take it From The Dead
17. shame – Drunk Tank Pink
16. Neal Francis – In Plain Sight
15. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
14. St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
13. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
12. Converge and Chelsea Wolfe – Bloodmoon:
11. Amyl and the Sniffers – Comfort To Me

10. Beachy Head – Beachy Head

If Ovlov is a warm blanket then Beachy Head is a sun baked beach towel for the ears. Beachy Head traces their lineage through bands such as Ryan Graveface (Dreamend / The Casket Girls), Steve Clarke (The Soft Cavalry), and Matt Duckworth (Flaming Lips). The album didn’t hit at first but the more and more that I listen to the sun bleached dream scapes. The more and more I felt the warm fuzzies inside. While it didn’t seem to make too much buzz upon release, this album was one of the sleeper hits of the year. If you’re feeling crummy then let Beachy Head into those ear holes for a well deserved escape.

9. Here Lies Man – Ritual Divination

It’s my own fault but, I never reviewed the album for The Fire Note. You can believe that if I did, it would be headphone approved. Here Lies Man’s Ritual Divination isn’t that special when you boil it down. The album is just really good at what it sets out to do. I could describe some of the details but, at one hour just put it on and hold on to your hat. The album is a stoners dream with Sabbath worship on the brain. Crunchy and doomy the album’s simple lyrics and brain smashing riffs with have the heshers head banging and screaming “IOMMI FOREVER!” Forever. Riding Easy Records really knows how to pick their artists. Here Lies Man never disappoints.

8. Ovlov – Buds

Getting in just under the buzzer, Ovlov’s Buds is a fuzzy, crunch shoe gaze blanket that drapes the ears with warmth and good feels. Album stand outs include “Eat More” with its’ tentative jangle and ball-peen riffs. “Land of Steve-O” drives so catchy as the fuzzy, feedback of the solo builds and builds. “The Wishing Well” that feels to carry some roots in Speedy Ortiz. The shoegaze/fuzz seemed to be a few and far between this year. Do yourself a favor, listen to the groups excellent Tru and then dive right into Buds. The latter will quickly become one of your favorite records of 2021!

7. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

Michelle Zauner felt like the indie it girl of 2021. Not only did she release the excellent Jubilee. She also scored the video game Sable-a soundtrack that I also recommend-and she released a book entitled Crying In H Mart: A Memoir. 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet was my #3 album that year, and for good reason. It’s a beautiful twinkle of an album that still holds up as great music. The follow up, Jubilee is just as good with a fun, joyous approach. Unshackled from the grief, the album really benefits. Slide Tackle” is a bouncy, light bop that showcases some beautiful brass. “Sit” is a feather that floats through the air caressed by synths and strings. A lot of these albums in the list celebrate the theme of joy and happiness. It’s really Zauner’s joy and song craft that stood out because this is an album that has to be heard.

6. Black Midi – Cavalcade

If there ever was an album that’s the perfect catharsis for a pandemic stricken 2021, Black Midi’s Cavalcade is that album. A dizzying whirl of noise, jazz, and math rock. I called their debut a lumbering continent coming to life. Cavalcade is a dynamo at the planet’s core that dictates spin and orbit. The album charges forward with the wild, beauty of “Chondromalacia Patella.” Its’ groove continues with the assessing appeal of “Dethroned.” This is Black Midi at their most confident. Schlagenheim was the group starting their impressive footing. Cavalcade is the group expanding the space and pushing what they can do. The album walks a thin line between odd and ability-plus, it goes hard. This album boils over and really helps with the release of what we’ve gone through over the past couple of years.

5. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard – Butterfly 3000

Just like Mild High Club, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s Butterfly 3000 took a while to sink in. The album has a snappy, quickness that feels freeing. Just as they did with 2016’s Nonagon Infinity-which was my #1 album for 2016,- Butterfly 3000 interconnects for easier listening. In fact the group released two version, one broken up into proper tracks and one 44 minuet track. Born out of what would be the bands first concert film, 2020’s Chunky Shrapnel, the album sings pure joy. Tunes like “Shanghai” and “Blue Morpho” kept me coming back but, the over all flow made me stay for more.

4. Mild High Club – Going Going Gone

The only reason I really know of Mild High Club is the fact that they recorded Sketches of New Brunswick East with Fire Note favorite King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. While I didn’t pay much mind to their debut, 2016’s Skiptracing, Going Going Gone is, of course, another story. On its’ face the album sounds a little too messy for its’ own good. But, Going Going Gone is one you listen to multiple times to embrace the mess. As the groove for “Dionysian State” kicks in, it’s immediate head-bob. The ending sax solo and keyboard outro really add the extra pizazz. The album as a whole is great but, the singles are just a good. The aforementioned “Dionysian State” was the second single. It was the first single, “Me Myself and Dollar Hell” that signified what we’re in for a treat. The song itself explores what fresh on most everyone’s mind: climate change, politics, capitalism. The composition is the really hero here. Not only is the chorus catchy but, it’s Dire Straights reborn as Alex Brettin tears through a quick witted solo. The mess of the album comes from the tangents that it likes to go on. It then continuously reigns it back to the groove to be my 4th album for this year.

3. Spirit Of The Beehive – ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH

Once I stumbled into 2018’s Hypnic Jerks I had a feel their next full-length would be something special. Spirit of the Beehive’s ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is an alluring electro-pop cluster-fuck of an album. The album borrow and bends it multiple perspectives from artists such as POND, Mild High Club, The Flaming Lips, and Ringo Deathstarr. “ENTERTAINMENT” starts the album into electro overload that blooms into a beautiful warmth. It’s a consistent trick that keeps the album exciting. “THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN’T DO” goes dark and intense with its’ drone and grind. “WRONG CIRCLE” is Japanese Breakfast writing in the style of Adventure Time. The album has many more twists and turns that might not be for everyone. But, all I know is that this is one of the best “sound collages” that I’ve heard all year. This is an album that you let wash over you.

2. Spirit Was – Heaven’s Just A Cloud

There’s no way that this record wasn’t going to be number 2. Spirit Was Heaven”s Just a Cloud is one of the most unique records released this year. Nick Corbo comes to us from his previous music project, LVL UP, which ended in 2018. His debut as Spirt Was show nods to multiple genres. While it sticks to a grime that familiar to fans of artists such as Pile, HUM, and the Pixies. It’s the constructed looseness and exploration outside those boundaries really makes that album stand out. The whole album has an almost one take improvised feel that feels exciting. Corbo’s spindly guitar weaves and tugs at all the vocals. The album easily sways from reckless beauty, white-hot intensity, and grungy, gothic malaise. I’ve not heard an album that’s been better adapted and assembled this year. I think you too might find that to be the case.

1. The Muckers – Endeavor

Now, I have to admit, when this record came out way back in February it passed me by. It was only when Rough Trade Records posted their special pressings/repressed favorites for the year, that’s when I dug a little deeper. The Muckers’ Endeavor isn’t revolutionary and it isn’t a think piece. It is the most fun with a record that I’ve had all year. The Muckers have created pure rock n’ roll junk food. “Roll The Dice”-one of the years best riffs-banks, soars, and gallops along with 80’s flare. The falsetto chorus only does more to enhance the vibe and is brought home by a beautifully bouncy guitar solo. “Thunderstorm”gives for broke with the sound of big guitars that descend towards earth like a lightning bolt. “So Far Away” uses it sex appeal and groove to tear up the dance floor. Endeavor was one of those records that was love at first listen. This record is pure joy rock and exactly what I needed especially for this year. The Muckers had to take #1 for me this year.

Simon Workman

Top 25 of 2021

  1. Spirit Of The Beehive – ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH
  2. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
  3. Black Country, New Road – For The First Time
  4. GBV – Earth Man Blues (and It’s Not Them… It Couldn’t Be Them… It Is Them!)
  5. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
  6. Black Midi – Cavalcade
  7. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard – Butterfly 3000 (and LW)
  8. Sven Wunder – Natura Morta
  9. Starflyer 59 – Vanity
  10. Squid – Bright Green Field
  11. Andrew Gabbard – Homemade
  12. Grave Flowers Bongo Band – Strength of Spring
  13. Nolan Potter – Music Is Dead
  14. Acid Dad – Take It From The Dead
  15. Ryley Walker – Course In Fable
  16. Snail Mail – Valentine
  17. Aaron Frazer – Introducing…
  18. St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
  19. Durand Jones And The Indications – Private Space
  20. Neal Francis – In Plain Sight
  21. Hooveriii – Water For The Frogs
  22. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
  23. Smug Brothers – Application Of The Twig
  24. The Cocker Spaniels – Are Still Alive (And So Are You)
  25. Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – I Told You So

Scot Lade

  1. Black Country, New Road: For The First Time

There is a whole new scene going on in the UK – primarily focused on London’s South End. There are young bands out there actually playing guitar and listening to King Crimson, Slint and The Fall in equal measures. To say that this sounds good to me on paper is an understatement. The actual bands in question (including black midi, Dry Cleaning and Squid) are even better than I could have imagined. It is the debut album by BCNR that refused to leave my CD player for months on end. It is this record that reverberates through my brain at odd times of the day. The controlled insanity of “singer” Isaac Wood keeps everything moving along but those horns, man, those freaking horns!!! My editor was lukewarm about this one in his review earlier this year. He isn’t wrong too often but…

2. Deerhoof: Actually, You Can

These guys (and girl) refuse to record the same album twice. Unhinged, precise and wonderfully tuneful, I’m thinking this is their best work since 2008’s Offend Maggie. Utilizing the same lineup for the past nine albums has helped the foursome acquire extra sensory perception. Somehow they seem to know what’s going on around them at all times even if it’s pure chaos: Deerhoof can make it pretty. Or terrifying. There’s very little Deerhoof cannot do. If their last couple studio efforts veered into the mainstream (and they did) then this one is the U-Turn towards the beyond that I’ve been waiting for. And not enough can be said about Greg Saunier’s drumming. He is, perhaps, my favorite working timekeeper; an absolute monster on par with the greatest ever.

3. Biffy Clyro: The Myth Of The Happily Ever After

Scotland’s biggest band can’t even make a dent in the US market. I saw them in Columbus a few years back and I swear there were only about 300 people there. Yet they headline festivals in Europe. WTF?! This is a “sister” album to last year’s The Celebration Of Endings and it’s even better. Both albums were written at the same time but the ones left of that previous album were re-worked with the pandemic in mind. The resulting LP is stunning. They are moving back into more interesting territory with elements of Prog, Folk and even R&B to go along with the usual heavy Alt Rock trappings. A great album by a band more people should know.

4. Iron Maiden: Senjutsu

Here’s a band everyone knows! Iron Maiden’s 17th album continues the hot streak begun when Bruce Dickenson rejoined the band in 2000. Slower and sludgier than eighties Maiden, these new songs are longer and proggier than ever. Steve Harris wrote three songs over ten minutes and stuck them all on the back end of the album. Genius move. The shorter songs are all great – even if there is some rehashing going on. But when something new arrives (like the Southern Rock twang of first single “Writing On The Wall”) it is truly exciting. These dudes are invigorated and they are, as they always have been, the best metal band on the planet.

5. Guided By Voices: Earth Man Blues

Bob Pollard released two GbV albums in 2021 (as well as an LP and an EP from those cheap fakers, Cub Scout Bowling Pins) and honestly any of them would be perfectly fine here. Unlike many in the Pollard camp, I do not think everything he does is golden – only most of it. And this version of the group is working like a well-oiled machine. Personally, I wish he’d record just one album a year (remember how good Space Gun was?) but that don’t pay the bills. I chose the first GbV album of the year probably because it’s a concept album and I am the Prog guy so…

6. black midi: Cavalcade
7. Deafheaven: Infinite Granite
8. Squid: Bright Green Field
9. Liars: The Apple Chop
10. Lil Nas: X Montero
11. Parquet Courts: Sympathy For Life
12. Manchester Orchestra: The Million Masks Of God
13. Poppy: Flux
14. Weezer: OK Human
15. King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard: Butterfly 3000
16. Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime
17. Modest Mouse: Golden Casket
18. tUnE-yArDs: Sketchy
19. Amyl & The Sniffers: Comfort To Me
20. The Antlers: Green To Gold
21. Spirit Of The Beehive: Entertainment, Death
22. Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg
23. Teenage Fan Club: Endless Arcade
24. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: G_d’s Pee At States End!
25. Greta Van Fleet: Battle At Garden’s Gate

Kevin Poindexter

  1. Guided By Voices – Earth Man Blues, It’s Not Them. It Can’t Be Them. It’s Them.
  2. The Reds, Pinks, and Purples – Uncommon Weather
  3. Wurld Series – What’s Growing
  4. Special Friend – Ennemi Commun
  5. Painted Shrines – Heaven and Holy
  6. Low – HEY WHAT
  7. Spirit Was – Heaven’s Just a Cloud
  8. James McMurtry – The Horses and the Hounds
  9. Matt Sweeney, Bonnie Prince Billy – Superwolves
  10. Strand of Oaks – In Heaven
  11. Idles – Crawler
  12. Ovlov – Buds
  13. Gentlemen Jesse – Lose Everything
  14. Psychic Flowers – For the Undertow
  15. N0V3L – Non-Fiction
  16. PACKS – Take the Cake
  17. Cub Scout Bowling Pins – Clang Clang Ho
  18. Cindy – 1:2
  19. Grouper – Shade
  20. A Place to Bury Strangers – Hologram
  21. Smile Machine – Bye for Now
  22. Rat Columns – Pacific Kiss
  23. The Umbrellas – The Umbrellas
  24. The Bevis Frond – Little Eden
  25. Ryley Walker – Course in Fable

Daniel Taylor

  1. Porto Geese: Duck – Excellent debut LP from this Oslo band. Super rich sound. Heavy fuzz laced with shoegaze and psychedelic twists. Porto Geese throw a lot at you and it all sticks. This is an instant love that’s only going to grow as I put this on repeat.
  2. JOHN (TIMESTWO): Nocturnal Manoeuvres – Excellent heavy post punk with vocals that remind me of Fucked Up
  3. Pardoner: Came Down DifferentBest album to date for Pardoner. Catchy and happy noise rock.
  4. SLONK: Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years? A wonderfully understated album loaded with indie pop hooks. Slonk have a Teenage Cool Kids (pre–Parquet Courts band) meets early Built to Spill vibe.
  5. Big Heet: Playing The BugDavid Settle (Psychic Flowers) really outdid himself on this Big Heet album. He manages to present a completely different sound from his Psychic Flowers albums and has no shortage of earworms for listeners.
  6. Psychic Flowers: For the UndertowFuzzy, lo-fi, crunchy power pop that toes the line between bands like Superchunk, The Thermals, Mike Krol and Robert Pollard/GBV. David Settle even throws in an ode to Bobby P for the last track.
  7. Psychic Graveyard: Veins Feel StrangeThe new Psychic Graveyard may be the best one yet. If Spray Paint made no wave techno/electro, they might sound like this. Heavy, but will get you moving. Track for track, this one just goes down smooth.
  8. IDLES: CrawlerIdles has learned from their past mistakes with their uneven Ultra Mono and made an entertaining and vastly improved 4th LP.
  9. Sleaford Mods: Spare RibsOut of the pub and into the club. Best Sleaford Mods album in years. Took a few listens, but once it sank in, it stuck.
  10. Wake Up: Tigers Can’t Be ChoosersSuch an enjoyable listen. Wake Up’s music will appeal to fans of Pavement and Built to Spill.
  11. Rider/Horse: Select TrialsLIYL Spray Paint: “Before the Rider/Horse team-up, Cory played guitar and sang in Spray Paint, while Chris was a hired gun for the likes of Trans Am, Les Savy Fav, and Scene Creamers.” That quote sold me. Excellent album.
  12. Philary: Uh-Oh It’s MeThe multi-talented Alex Molini (Pile, Stove, Ovlov, etc…) latest album is a killer follow up to his 2019 debut. Fans of off-kilter noise rock will want to hear this.
  13. Black Country, New Road: For the First TimeUK critics darlings continue to hook me. They should appeal to fans of Rodan and Black Midi, except they really outdid Black Midi this year. They are poised to rule in 2022 with the announcement of their follow up record.
  14. The Cowboy: Riddles From The UniverseNoise punk from Cleveland. No muss, no fuss album from this underrated band. You may have missed their past few releases. Don’t make that mistake with this one.
  15. Squid: Bright Green FieldUK art-post-punk. Unique sound that really requires repeat listens and headphones to appreciate how much this band has to offer.
  16. Meatbodies: 333Heavy fuzz/stoner rockers change things up on this album and created an appealing divergence from their normal sound.
  17. TV Priest: UppersKind of like Idles, but more groovy.
  18. Ovlov: BudsYou can never go wrong with Ovlov. Never.
  19. Track Star: Sometimes, What’s The Difference? ReduxEverything I ever loved about 90s indie rock occurs on this compilation at one point or another.
  20. Media Jeweler:The Sublime Sculpture Of Being AliveHerky-jerky and mathy post rock.
  21. Packs: Takes the CakeLanguid garage rock from Toronto. 
  22. So Cow: BisignisCatchy indie pop from Galway, Ireland.
  23. Wurld Series: What’s GrowingChristchurch, New Zealand’s answer to Pavement.
  24. Besnard Lakes: The Besnard Lakes Are The Last Of The Great Thunderstorm WarningsA wonderful album. This is a headphones required, get lost in the music kind of record.
  25. Astral Swans: Astral SwansCalgary-based psychedelic-tinged experimental indie folk. 

Fire Note Staff

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