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Year in Review: Olivia and Taylor pick their favorites from a year of incredible releases

At the risk of filling yet another article with cliches, 2021 was a rollercoaster of a year- live music returned, artists resumed activity with a new level of optimism and we got a slew of new releases after our quarantine blues. Narrowing down our top nine is always a challenge, but we had our work cut out for us this time. Read on to check out Taylor and Olivia’s favorite albums of 2021.

Olivia’s Picks

9. Bleachers – Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night

Amidst his powerhouse production for some of the biggest names in pop, Jack Antonoff and co. finally gave the people the long-awaited third Bleachers album- to notably mixed reviews. Setting all of that aside, this album might be a departure from Antonoff’s offbeat anthems, but it’s the type of album we didn’t know we needed. The music is restrained in many places and brings listeners back to 10 tracks of profoundly amazing lyrics and plenty of new lines to whisper-scream out loud. It’s tough to not fall head over heels for a song like “Stop Making This Hurt” so don’t miss the chance to give this record all the accolades it deserves.

8. Knocked Loose – A Tear in the Fabric of Life

Hardcore outfit Knocked Loose surprise-dropped this collection of songs, rocking the eardrums of longtime fans and drawing in plenty of new ones. The hype surrounding this band has never been misplaced, with each release showing stronger lyricism and musicianship from a group that also translates that energy to one of the best live shows Atlas caught this year. Heavy music isn’t for everyone but we implore even the most stringent doubters to throw themselves into a Knocked Loose pit- you might just have the time of your life.

7. Dirty Honey – Dirty Honey

At long last we got a full-length album from these Los Angeles rockers. The killer quartet is reminiscent of the best of 80s rock with the raw skills to back it up. Dirty Honey was one of the first to hit the road this year, still hungry to play shows and show off years of hard work. This self-titled album rips through hard rocking bangers and longing ballads in turn and trust us when we say there’s not a filler riff to be found. 

6. Blackstarkids – Puppies Forever

We’ve said this before, but Puppies Forever is Blackstarkids’ best work. They’ve managed to encapsulate a plethora of emotions and experiences that crash landed on everyone as a result of the pandemic while also finding their own silver linings. Their bubbly energy and whimsical pop will draw you in and you’ll stay for the message the trio is sending to a world tired and uninspired from the last two years. This album might be brand new but Blackstarkids infuses each of their records with a vibe that’s sure to stand the test of time. 

5. Tomorrow X Together – The Chaos Chapter: Fight or Escape

Technically this was an expanded version of an EP from earlier in the year, but the added tracks put this album firmly on our best of list. TXT has grown from their debut only a few short years ago, pulling even more new fans into the fold with their latest material. Fight or Escape experiments with rock, pop and even a bit of electronic influences, while also containing one of the best English songs by a Korean group in recent memory. All the members are still very young but their wide range of talents is showcased to perfection on this album- very indicative of the greatness to come. 

4. Don Broco – Amazing Things

Don Broco remains one of the most interesting bands in rock music and they continue to stake their claim with Amazing Things. The release of this album saw some unforeseen delays, but the band made sure it was well worth the wait. This record finds Broco delving into their heavier side and giving us one of the best songs in their catalog (“One True Prince”) at the same time. Amazing Things is eccentric and fun and a stellar capstone to a weird and wild year.

3. The Maine – XOXO: From Love & Anxiety in Real Time

When The Maine released “Sticky” as the first single, the game was already won. Fifteen years into their career and it’s really no surprise that this oddball band from Arizona seems to always only be getting started. XOXO is their latest chapter and yet again, the band has the perfect lyric for every mood and situation. Much of the music released this year follows a common thread, but The Maine’s take on these strange times will hold up long after the shadow of the pandemic has left- and that’s been their mark with music since the beginning. 

2. Turnstile – Glow On

Choosing my top favorite albums of the year was an incredibly tough decision and honestly, Turnstile and my number one choice could really be called more of a tie. Hearing Glow On for the first time after its release was a shock to the system in the best possible way. They’re a hardcore band that didn’t make a hardcore album and the whole thing still hits so hard. Listening to and loving this album is a visceral experience that’s impossible to quantify and we can’t wait for the chance to experience these songs live.

1. Stray Kids – NOEASY

I dove headfirst into KPOP in 2020 and Stray Kids quickly took the top spot in my heart and my year end list. The fully self-produced octet is heavily involved in every step of the creative process and their talents have probably doubled their fanbase in the last couple of years. NOEASY takes Stray Kids’ signature chaotic sound and streamlines it beautifully and listeners will hear everything from EDM to rock to pop ballads with everything fitting together like puzzle pieces. To pull from our review earlier this year: NOEASY is a massive labor of love and undeniable skill from one of the hardest working groups in the Korean music industry. Watching this 4th generation group eschew genre and convention has led to the creation of some of the most innovative and compelling new music- and propels this record into a contender for one of the best albums of this year.   

Taylor’s Picks

The Maine – XOXO: From Love & Anxiety in Real Time

As a relative newcomer to the 8123 family, I can’t speak to The Maine’s growth over the course of their illustrious 15-year career. But what I can say is this is one of the most cohesive and well-produced albums of the year, and experiencing it first with a visual component immediately burned it into my brain—in a good way. XOXO has it all: the radio friendly bops, the lovesick sweetness, the introspection. The stripped-down notes that swell into grand soundscapes. Even a pure dancefloor pop moment (“Dirty, Pretty, Beautiful”) that we can’t stop comparing to The 1975! And the neatly tied bow with “Face Toward the Sun,” closing the record with a new spin but a familiar feeling. 

The Band CAMINO – The Band CAMINO

After kicking out their, erm, problematic bassist last spring, The Band CAMINO were at a metaphorical yellow wood. It would have been a cliche for them to fall into a sophomore slump after 2019’s tryhard, but they, they took the road less traveled by. Their eponymous album is bigger and better, proving that moving ahead as a trio paid off splendidly. Sonically they’ve brought more elements into each track, including heavily favored synthesizers and distorted instrumentals—leaning into the pop hooks and catchy melodies. But it’s the lyrics that elevate the album, showcasing no-holds-barred vulnerability around self-image, parental relationships, and, of course, mourning the one who got away.    

Patrick Droney – State of the Heart

It’s been a long road getting to this album, Patrick Droney’s debut, even though he says it’s his “hello” to the world. The singer-songwriter has had years of learning both about music and about storytelling from the greats—B.B. King, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, the works—and finally compiled his own folklore in a 15-track collection. It’s a commentary on joy and pain and self discovery through love and loss. And the attention to lyrical detail brings Droney’s stories to life. His upbringing, influences, and home base (Nashville) all shine through with notes of blues, soul, rock, and vintage pop. It’s been a comfort album for me since its spring release, somehow a fresh sound with a nostalgic tint. 

CHVRCHES – Screen Violence

For the first time since their early years as a band, CHVRCHES is leaning into the dark side and is all the better for it. You’ll still hear their signature sparkly synths—opener “Asking for a Friend” is a prime example—but the joy feels a bit ominous. Probably because Screen Violence is a highly personal album that paints fame as a nightmare, weaving in horror tropes (the “Final Girl” who “should be screaming”) and comparisons to a slow and painful death. Throughout the record, vocalist Lauren Mayberry wavers between introspection and rage, just as the haunting and euphoric melodies push and pull, but there’s a note of hope on the horizon. Maybe Mayberry, despite her doubts, is the final girl after all.    

The Honest Heart Collective – More Harm

It’s hard to not have a new outlook on life in the wake of a near-death experience. When The Honest Heart Collective was on the way to a gig in London and their van hit a patch of black ice, the Canadian rockers thought that was the end. And what emerged was an album that ponders resilience in the face of life’s trials and tribulations. It’s musically solid, a gritty sort of folk rock that’s more Menzingers than Mumford, ranging from upbeat anthems (“I Heard You’re Worried About Me,” which is how I got hooked in the first place) to contemplative ballads (“Funeral”). All with the band’s signature determined hopefulness.   

Valley – Last Birthday

Even though they still feel like an up-and-coming band, Toronto-based quartet Valley is already on their third album, and upon first listen, it’s clear that emerging from the worst of the pandemic and gaining new experiences led to a breakthrough. Last Birthday, a direct contrast to last year’s sucks to see you doing better EP, is a light and airy danceable record that celebrates the little moments of a new love and the unconditional love that exists both platonically and romantically. It’s a quick listen—a 22 minute shot of pure serotonin—further driving home the idea of perfection in simplicity. But it’s not without substance. True to form, Valley is earnest and honest and open as they learn and grow, taking us along with them. 

Manchester Orchestra – The Million Masks of God

Some movies are simply meant to be experienced in the IMAX theater—giant screen, surround sound, every line of audio hitting your core. This is the album equivalent. The Million Masks of God is another stellar entry in Manchester Orchestra’s robust catalog, and it has all the haunting harmonies and layered instrumentation you’d expect. But its standout feature is how each track flows with precision into the next, sonically telling an epic story that will be passed on for generations. Meanwhile, the lyrics traverse the treacherous realm of loss and all the emotions that accompany it (the album’s inspiration was guitarist Robert McDowell’s father’s battle with cancer) leaving you with a contemplative feeling you simply can’t shake. And if art is supposed to make you feel, then this is a masterpiece. 

Mammoth WVH – Mammoth WVH

When your father is a music legend, there are obviously some huge shoes to fill. Wolfgang Van Halen, however, has never shied away from his family legacy and is already making waves as the face of Mammoth WVH. His debut album certainly pays homage to the past (opening track “Mr. Ed” would feel right at home in the Van Halen catalog) but is forging a new path ahead. Wolfgang provided all the instrumentation and vocals, creating a collection of heavy rock tracks with memorable riffs, thumping bass, and deeply personal lyrics. Listen closely and you can hear a blood-sweat-and-tears level of hard work and dedication that went into the album. Eddie himself was a fan of his son’s music, which is the only endorsement you could ever want.

A Story Told – American Made

Every year-end album list needs an entry that doesn’t have much explanation, a record that was in rotation for multiple months. A Story Told’s American Made was one such album, a half hour jaunt through catchy pop-punk tinged tunes that beg to be blasted on a road trip with the windows open. It’s the former band’s triumphant comeback after 2017’s Good Looks, and while the world looks a lot different than it did then (for starters, there’s no Warped Tour they can return to), they’re staying true to their “emotionally forward pop rock” roots. Hot tip: Stream this one now, before any of the tracks hit a million Spotify plays.

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Story by Olivia Khiel and Taylor Knauf