Features Year End Lists

Staged Haze Presents: The 50 Best Albums of 2021

Well…here we are again. We’ve made it to the end of another year. But barely. I think morale is higher compared to this time a year ago? I hope it is for you, too.

We spent a LONG time compiling this post: so much so that we planned for its official posting months in advance, with multiple deadlines to meet along the way, including a team Zoom meeting, so I think it’s safe to say this is a pretty offish list of albums we’re excited to share with you.

You may be surprised that some big albums were left off the list: let us know in a comment if your fave was snubbed! We live for the drama.

50. Cloud Nothings: The Shadow I Remember (February 26/Carpark Wichita)
It’s a little staggering to think of how much work Cloud Nothings has produced in the band’s 12-year existence, as they released their seventh LP The Shadow I Remember early this year, produced by Steve Albini. The Shadow I Remember is drearier sounding than most of Cloud Nothing’s six previous albums, which makes sense as they wrote the entirety of the LP during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without explicitly mentioning the circumstances that the world was living under while the album was made, the band is able to aptly capture the malaise and anxiety of the pandemic. The exciting thing about Cloud Nothings is that each of the band’s seven LPs has captured a completely different sound, and they don’t make too big of a deal about it because like any good band with punk roots, they’re able to squeeze 11 songs into just over 30 minutes on this latest one. – Erin

Standout tracks: “Oslo,” “A Longer Moon”

49. The World Is A Beautiful Place & And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die: Illusory Walls (October 8/Epitaph)
After a successful but decrescendoing career as an emo revival band and several lineup changes, The World Is… reinvented themselves with Illusory Walls, a much heavier-sounding album than their previous discography. The instrumentals on the incredibly headbangable record are extremely tightly woven, in no small part thanks to Chris Teti. Teti not only co-produced the album but played all of the guitars on the record—a feat that only becomes more impressive when watching him play through all the parts on “Invading the World of the Guilty as a Spirit of Vengeance.” As I’ve mentioned before, the 15-minute-long “Infinite Josh” is one of my favorite songs of the year, unfolding in waves of indie rock, post-rock, and post-hardcore. As someone who likes post-hardcore bands that aren’t too post-hardcore, metal bands when they aren’t actually metal, and only can stand one jam band, TWIABP’s “prog emo metal indie post rock jam core” album somehow hits the exact right spot for me, and hopefully for you. – Brittany

Standout Tracks: “Infinite Josh,” “Trouble,” “Afraid to Die”

Our Coverage: Yes, There’s a Song About the Parkersburg/DuPont PFAS Crisis on the New TWIABP Album

48. Jeff Rosenstock: Ska Dream (April 20/Polyvinyl Record Company/Quote Unquote Records)
Technically, Jeff Rosenstock didn’t create anything new with “Ska Dream,” a ska repurposing of his 2020 release “No Dream,” but the album’s arrangements and delivery are done so uniquely and with so much zest that it is sometimes hard to remember that you’re listening to something you’ve heard before. “Ska Dream” is essentially a joke — it was announced on April Fools Day, released on 4/20 and every song name is a joke (like “No Time to Skank,” the new ska version of “No Time), but it’s the most fun joke that I’ve heard in a while and a well-needed true burst of joy in such an otherwise draining year. – Erin

Standout tracks: “Ohio Porkpie,” “NO TIME TO SKANK,” “S K A D R E A M”

47. Beach Bunny: Blame Game (January 15/Mom + Pop Music)
“Blame Game” is only four songs long, but each song is powerful and infectious enough to make an annual best-of list impact. The Chicago pop-punk band, which first formed in 2015, perfectly finds its footing on the four tracks, especially leadoff single “Good Girls (Don’t Get Used),” which calls out bad partners in relationships. After all of the success the band found with their debut LP “Honeymoon,” released in 2020, and this EP, I can’t wait to see where they go next. – Erin

Standout track: “Good Girls (Don’t Get Used)”

46. Blankenberge: Everything (November 14/Elusive Sound) 
Blankenberge slides in as one of the final entrants for this year’s top album roundup, and for good reason. I discovered Blankenberge after Kristin asked me to cover a New Music Sunday post. I’m so thankful that she asked me to cover the post because this atmospheric shoegaze ensemble has won my heart. Everything is Blankenberge’s second full-length project that encapsulates a summer drive down the mountains of Arizona. Your attention is robbed by the breathtaking sights around you, and Blankenberge’s crescendo of drums and reverb gradually amplifies the experience: a priority add to any long-drive playlist. Songs of particular mention include the bombastic “Different” and the wispy “So High.” Get ready to pump your stereo to eleven. – Sean

Standout Tracks: “Different,” “Everything,” “So High” 

45. Watchhouse, Watchhouse (August 13/Yep Roc Records) 
Parting ways with the name Mandolin Orange, Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz sought a moniker that aligned more closely with their folk-rock goals, paving the way to what we can now recognize as Watchhouse. This LP acts as the debut of that new revitalized pseudonym that the duo believes suits them best. Marlin’s vocals sound more genuine than ever before; Frantz backs Marlin’s lead and adds a fiddling flair to the project. The duo sounds as if they’ve shed a skin that they perceived to have held them back for several years, most readily apparent on “Upside Down.” This resurgence is inspiring, to say the least, and proves that both Marlin and Frantz have many more tricks up their sleeves. Fans new and old should continue to keep their ears out as Watchhouse embraces their budding persona. – Sean

Standout Tracks: “Wondrous Love,” “Upside Down,” “Lonely Love Affair”

44. Lightning Bug: A Color of The Sky (June 25/Fat Possum Records)
This five-piece led by Audrey Kang splits the difference between heartland rock and Big Thief-folk, navigating to uninhabited indie-rock waters by incorporating drones and other sounds that come off as vintage and modern at the same time. The atmospheric post-rock-tinged Americana does indeed conjure up images of lightning bugs on tracks like “Wings of Desire”; “The past is made of stardust / The future’s shifting sand / If it’s my own path that’s drifting / Then where am I to land?” sings Kang. The perfect album for driving through cornfields during a muggy summer dusk with the windows down. – Brittany

Standout Tracks: “Wings of Desire,” “I Lie Awake,” “September Song, pt. ii”

43. Origami Angel: Gami Gang (April 30/Counter Intuitive Records)
The most fun album of the year goes to Origami Angel, the D.C.-based two-piece comprised of vocalist/guitarist Ryland Heagy and drummer Pat Doherty. Though Gami Gang is a 20-track double album, the duo keeps the songs short and snappy, hopping from one hook to another on irresistibly punny tracks like “Tom Holland Oates” or “Bed Bath and Batman Beyond.” The impeccable riffs and irreverent takes on the early ’00s alt-rock/pop-punk sound work perfectly for Gami, backtracking relatable songs that turn TV-watching, trips to Taco Bell, and grabbing your GameBoy and getting in the car into profound musings on platonic and romantic relationships. The album is interspersed with samples, trap beats, musical easter eggs, and more energy than you would expect from a two-person, self-produced project. As we said in our first half of 2021 roundup, the first 45 seconds of the record will put a smile on your face or your money back. – Brittany

Standout Tracks: “Neutrogena Spektor,” “Noah Fence,” “Isopropyl Alchemy”

42. Torres – Thirstier (July 30, Merge Records)
Explosive, cathartic, and downright fun, Thirstier contains some of my favorite pop-rock bangers released this year. Mackenzie Scott truly had fun this time around exploring love, desire, and a yearning for a more electric, rebellious life. For me, this album was my “post-2020” antidote, the album that got me truly excited about not only live music, but all the adventures life has to offer that we missed out on last year. Even taking a walk to the CVS down the street feels like a movie scene with this album blasting in my earbuds. -Emma

Standout Tracks: “Hug from a Dinosaur,” “Don’t Go Putting Wishes in My Head,” “Drive Me”

41. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (September 3, AGE 101/AWAL)
British hip-hop innovator Little Simz was not messing around on this release. An assertion of her individuality and mission as well as an honoring of her struggles, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is an album of true power. It’s cinematically produced with lyrics that seem to have no bounds. Her willingness to be vulnerable as a rapper is a true selling point here, and something that sets her apart from many of her peers- but even so, she refuses to sacrifice her swagger and charisma. It feels like a luxury to listen to this album, and I think it will continue to be remembered as one of the best rap projects of this year. – Emma

Standout Tracks: “Introvert,” “Woman,” ‘Point and Kill”

40. James Blake: Friends That Break Your Heart (October 8/Republic)
Fragile, warm and riddled with heartache, Friends That Break Your Heart is a spectacular output from James Blake who creates just a subtly different-enough sound from past projects. With gorgeous features from Monica Martin, SZA, JID and more, this album mixes all sorts of genres, bouncing between folk and R&B seamlessly. Although the album is not without its flaws, its sheer vulnerability and emotion is enough to warm any somber, searching soul. – Mitch

Standout tracks: “Show Me,” “Foot Forward,” “Say What You Will”

39. Arlo Parks:Collapsed In Sunbeams (January 29/Transgressive Records)
Arlo Parks’ Collapsed in Sunbeams is an album that openly embraces historically taboo topics like queer identity, sexuality, mental health, and depression in such pointed, honest ways. Sunbeams gives Parks a raw, honest embrace that young individuals questioning their identity and place in the world so desperately need, acting as a vessel for an entire generation in the process. It’s beautiful, uplifting, and optimistic—all wrapped in a warm, Grammy-worthy bow. – Mitch

Standout tracks: “Hurt,” “Too Good,” “Eugene”

38. Orla Gartland: Woman On The Internet (August 20/New Friends Music)
Irish alt-pop singer Orla Gartland combines Fiona Apple’s clear percussivity with a Maggie-Rogers pop sensitivity on her debut album, Woman on the Internet. Gartland embodies both your empowering big sister and your most Insta-famous friend, giving out advice like “never buy the jeans that you’ve never seen; you’ll regret it” to open the record and singing “And if you / Could see yourself / From above the sky / I think you’d say that you’re doing fine” on “You’re Not Special, Babe.” She’s also humorously relatable, asking her ex-therapist, “Can I be your sister or your daughter / Or your houseplant in the corner?” on “Madison” and talking about the things she learned from “a woman on the internet,” as all of us are wont to do. Woman on the Internet is filled with songs for belting out loud off-key when no one else is listening or when you feel like getting a little dramatic with the dance moves. – Brittany

Standout tracks: “You’re Not Special, Babe,” “More Like You,” “Pretending”

35. joe p: Emily Can’t Sing (October 22/Atlantic Recording Company)
I get asked essentially on a weekly basis how I find new music and to be honest, I don’t really know. Aside from reading music publications and randomly clicking through Spotify, there really is no method to my madness. With that being said, when I discovered New Jersey-native Joe p’s music a couple months ago, I simply wondered where he was hiding my entire life. There are few instances where you hear someone’s music for the first time and instantly connect with it in such a simple way: you just really freaking love the way it sounds. Similar sonically to artists like Briston Maroney and Hippo Campus, joe p has an inherent ability to write heartbreakingly human lyrics about anxiety and just…being sad.

If it means anything to you, “Crown Vic (Black Cloud)” clocked in at #60 on my Top Songs of 2021 and the song hasn’t even been out in the world for two months. – Kristin

Standout Tracks:”Leaves,” “Off My Mind,” “Crown Vic (Black Cloud)”

36. Cassandra Jenkins: An Overview On Phenomenal Nature (/Ba Da Bing!)
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature holds grief and strength in balance. “I’m a three-legged dog,” Jenkins says in the first line of the album, “looking for what I lost.” Later in the same song, she describes herself with a striking image of strength: “I’m Michelangelo / And I carve myself out of marble.” The quest for balancing and re-balancing strength and grief reappears throughout the album—in the suit that finally arrives in the mail for Jenkins to wear to David Berman’s funeral (Jenkins was rehearsing for a tour with Purple Mountains when Berman died), in the driving and the meditative healing in song-of-the-year contender “Hard Drive.” The other standout on this album is “The Ramble,” a seven-minute ambient track recorded in the Ramble in Central Park during the COVID lockdown. The gentle saxophone, faint children’s chatter, birdsong, and footsteps are the perfect savasana, a way to regather yourself, in all your brokenness, to face the world again with strength. – Brittany

Standout Tracks: “Hard Drive,” “The Ramble,” “Hailey”

35. Really From: Really From (March 12/Topshelf Records)
Self-described as an “indie jazz” group, this Boston-based quartet of Berklee alums skillfully synthesizes math rock, emo, and jazz. As a second-generation Asian American, I was pleasantly shocked when I realized Really From’s unusual name stems from the question “where are you really from?” In line with the album cover image of an Asian woman with a fork and knife in her hair bun, the album’s content deals with being mixed-race, from an immigrant family, and generally in-between cultures in a far more detailed way than I’ve ever heard before: “I smile like I can understand / But my mind reminds me I can’t,” sings Michi Tassey in “Try Lingual.” In “I’m From Here,” Chris Lee-Rodriguez joins Tassey in singing, “I was raised by the shoes left at the door / I was raised like my mother was before / I was raised by the fear of my own skin / I was raised with it / I was born with it / I will live with it,” giving voice to the unconsciousnesses of many Americans of color. – Brittany

Standout Tracks: “Apartment Song,” “Try Lingual,” “In The Spaces”

34. Wilderado: Wilderado (October 15/Bright Antenna Records) Wilderado slots in as the slow-drawn, feel-good entrant of my top albums. This debut album, contrived by coinciding collegiate fifth-years back in 2016, balances harmonies with thoughtful lyricism. While Max Rainer takes command of the lead vocals, Tyler Wimpee echoes their presence on bass and backup vocals. The bond between Rainer and Wimpee took hold after their mutual friends graduated and went their separate ways. It took the duo six years to finalize their debut LP, but the final product is nothing less than stunning. Spearheaded by single “Head Right,” a track that nearly solidified itself as one of my top three songs of the year, is a fast-paced bop that’s goal is clear as day: to help you get your head in the right frame of view. This track is a clear demonstration of the chemistry that has developed between the duo. Take this album for a spin; you won’t regret it! – Sean

33. Rostam: Changephobia (June 4/XL Recordings) 
This year felt like 2020 Part 2 for the better half of the year, but I knew I had broken free from that spell when I first heard Changephobia. I’m brought back to the warm days of June every time I pop on this nearly 40-minute masterpiece. The former-founder of Vampire Weekend has certainly hit his production stride, seemingly effortlessly, as evidenced by this project. It’s one of those shorter plays that is chock-full of inspiration and emotion from start to finish. Notable favorites of mine include the up-tempo “Kinney” and the slower-paced “Bio18.” This album has to be listened to from start to finish, so get comfortable and relax. Let Rostam take you on this journey. – Sean

Standout Tracks: “Unfold You,” “Kinney,” “Bio18”

32. Allison Ponthier: Faking My Own Death (August 6/Interscope)
If you could combine my love for Phoebe Bridgers, Kacey Musgraves, and Taylor Swift, you’d get Allison Ponthier: which is probably why I love her music so much. Signed earlier this year after several years of songwriting in Los Angeles, Ponthier’s debut EP Faking My Own Death solidifies her spot in alt. pop/country/folk genre, representing what it’s like to be a Queer woman from the south and the acceptance that doesn’t come easy. Ponthier’s lyrics are incredibly personal and autobiographical, tackling everything from sexuality to self-doubt to being stuck in the past. Each song boats colorful and descriptive storytelling, highlighting this quality as one that country music fans have loved about the genre for decades, but adding a little bit of **spice** and millennial material. – Kristin

Standout Tracks: “Cowboy,” “Harshest Critic,” “Faking My Own Death”

31. Madi Diaz: History Of A Feeling (August 27/Anti)
Madi Diaz has been a quiet staple of the Nashville songwriting scene for years, but History of a Feeling feels like her solo breakthrough. The album chronicles her breakup with a partner who later came out as transgender. It’s folksy, raw, and a masterclass in songwriting- the reeling anger that songs like “Rage” and “Woman in My Heart” emit comes almost solely from her  incredible lyrics. The true feat is that Diaz wrangled this unwieldy experience into a cohesive project that fully represents her emotional landscape without resorting to cliche or melodrama. Anyone who likes to indulge in a “sad girl” album from time to time (or all the time…) needs to add it to their rotation. It’s one of the great breakup albums of the year.  – Emma

Standout Tracks: “Resentment,” History of a Feeling,” “New Person, Old Place”

30. Aly & AJ: A Touch Of The Beat Gets You Up On Your Feet Gets You Out and Into The Sun (May 7/Aly & AJ Music/AWAL)
When Aly & AJ announced that they were releasing their first LP in 14 years (!!!) I doubt that anyone was expecting A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun, which, on top of being one of the best albums of the year, also has to be in the running for longest album title of the year. The sisters, known primarily for their Disney Channel days and mid-aughts pop singles, branched out into brand-new territory on their 2020 LP, which of course contains pop and rock elements, but is also inspired by country, disco and so many other genres that come together brilliantly in the duo’s peaceful and simultaneously heartbreaking album. – Erin

Standout Tracks: “Pretty Places,” “Listen!!!,” “Don’t Need Nothing”

29. Wild Pink: A Billion Little Lights (February 19/Royal Mountain Records)
I don’t need to review this album again. From the moment I heard the opening track to deciding to see the band twice on the same tour to the recent release of the last single of the ABLL era, “Florida,” being a Wild Pink booster has become my brand. In each of those moments, I’ve thought to myself, “if everyone heard this, they would agree with me that this is one of the best bands in the world.” 

As is apparent from the band’s still-whoppingly-low 64k Spotify listeners, getting people to listen to the band is a struggle. So, much like Bernie Sanders, I am once again asking you to listen to Wild Pink.

Music writers have compared this band to everything from M83 and Tom Petty to the War on Drugs and Hovvdy to Pedro and the Lion and Death Cab; Wild Pink makes music that’s inherently listenable. If you are a Bon Iver fan who’s looking for something other than Bon Iver wannabes or just don’t mind a bit of post-rock LaCroix along with your heartland rock, please listen to Wild Pink. – Brittany

Standout Tracks: “Oversharers Anonymous,” “The Shining But Tropical,” “Pacific City”

Our Coverage: Wild Pink, You Deserve The Good Things That’ll Come To You Because Of A Billion Little Lights, Wild Pink is Back On The Road With Ratboys And It ‘Just Feels Really Right’

28. Blood Cultures: Luno (May 28/Pack Records)
The ambiguous Blood Cultures delivers one of the weirder, most sensational albums in recent memory with LUNO. LUNO experiments with a visceral exploration of internal darkness and destruction, yet drives forward, constructing sounds and lyrics that act as an acknowledgment of the darkness, rather than a condemnation of it. Ultimately, the record is about resurrection and a growing confidence in one’s position relative to everyone – or everything – else. Blood Cultures’ music—and this project in particular—lack any sort of preestablished order or familiarity in music, and his (or their) music is supremely original. For that reason, Blood Cultures finds its way onto our list. – Mitch

Standout tracks: “Set It On Fire,” “Cabin Fever Freestyle,” “Beneath the Moon & Me”

27. CHVRCHES: Screen Violence (August 27, Glassnote Records)
CHVRCHES returned with a vengeance on Screen Violence, an abrasive, beautiful record that touches on issues like misogyny, mental health, and the unreality within our technology and devices. Lyrically, the album warns listeners to be wary of the world’s impacts on us, but sonically, it might as well be their best album yet. With exorbitant production and instrumentation that recalls Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, CHVRCHES crafts a chilling yet fulfilling project that’s begging to be experienced live. – Mitch

Standout Tracks: “He Said She Said,” “How Not to Drown,” “California”

26. Dora Jar: Digital Meadow (May 28/Original Sin)
After I heard Dora Jar’s “Polly” for the first time, I knew she was in a pop league all her own, but the full Digital Meadow project contained elements that surprised me even more. The title is a perfect name for the kind of music she produces; it’s folk music with Grimes-inspired glitch, bouncy synths, and unexpected vocal effects. Dora Jar’s production toolbox is overflowing, and I’m eager to see her explode in the coming year. Anyone who loves innovative production as the frosting to an airtight song should give this quick twenty-minute project a listen- it’s as rich as a full-length album. – Emma

Standout Tracks: “Polly,” “Garden,” “Wizard”

25. Lorde: Solar Power (August 20/Universal Music)
After a long-awaited return, Lorde’s third LP really divided the masses. Some (including myself) praised it as a fun, sun-soaked social critique, while others claim that the album is anticlimactic after the soaring heights of her previous two releases. At its low points “Solar Power” can be a bit boring, but at its peaks, “Solar Power” is smart, reflective and laid-back in a deserved way. There’s been criticisms of “Solar Power,” saying that it was irresponsible of the singer to release an album that’s upbeat during a pandemic,  but the truth is, Lorde doesn’t owe any of us anything. Lorde’s a 25-year-old woman who sometimes wants to have fun in the sun and joke around, and sometimes that’s what we want to listen to as well. – Erin

Standout Tracks: “Mood Ring,” “The Path,” “Fallen Fruit”

24. Remi Wolf: Juno (October 15, Island Records)
Music’s most chaotic new star brought us one of the most pristine pop music of the year on Juno. Though much of this album was released previously on the EPs that shot Remi Wolf into mini stardom, Juno works just as well as a cohesive, standalone body of work. Her funky sensibility, command over her melodies, excellent vocals and uncanny ability to inject some bounce into any song makes this a one-of-a-kind pop record. But ultimately, no amount of musical analysis can change that this is simply one of the most shamelessly fun albums of the year. -Emma

Standout Tracks: “Volkiano,” “Grumpy Old Man,” “Anthony Kiedis”

23. Clairo: Sling (July 16, FADER/Republic)
In the writing process, Clairo admitted that “Joanie, my dog, opened up my world in ways I didn’t think were capable. By caring for her, it forced me to face my own thoughts about parenthood and what it would mean to me.” Sling does have a certain maternal nature, that soft instinct to understand and be understood, and a maturity that Immunity strove for but didn’t quite achieve.  Written almost exclusively by Clairo and Jack Antonoff, Sling is jazzy and folksy, gentle, and reflective. Clairo flexes her musicianship by playing a slew of instruments on the record (including a kalimba, organ, mellotron, and clavichord), and her lyrics on permanence, belonging, and intimacy are thoughtfully written. Her whispery vocals suit the 70s-singer-songwriter aesthetic well- perhaps even better than her bedroom pop roots. – Emma

Standout Tracks: “Amoeba,” “Blouse,” “Just for Today”

22.Taylor Swift: Red (Taylor’s Version) (November 12/Republic Records)
Yeah, maybe it’s weird to include an album that’s technically nine years old in our best-of list, but it just goes to show how much the Jake-Gyllenhall-is-a-monster-manifesto continues to hold up. All jokes aside, Red (Taylor’s Version) was one of this year’s most anticipated releases after seeing how successful, and just outright fun Taylor’s re-recording of “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” was earlier this year. The stand out track on this 30 song album is of course the ten-minute version of “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” which somehow perfects an already perfect song with even more heartbreaking verses for Swifties to cry to. – Erin

Standout Tracks: “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” “Nothing New,” “Better Man”

21. Kacey Musgraves: star-crossed (September 10/UMG)
It’s hard to believe that just three short years ago, music’s newest country-turned-pop crossover Kacey Musgraves slinkily made her mark on contemporary culture with the release of her Grammy-award winning album Golden Hour, an album devoted to her now-divorced husband and less successful musical counterpart Ruston Kelly. I wouldn’t have ever believed that Musgraves’ next move would be a divorce album after that masterpiece! star-crossed is an ode to the colorful chaos of emotions that come with a marriage ending: not to mention one that was plastered over the internet for the world to see. While it was no easy feat for Musgraves & co. to achieve the acclaim they found with Golden Hour, star-crossed sure is a worthy attempt. – Kristin

Standout Tracks: “good wife,” “breadwinner,” “camera roll”

20. Bendigo Fletcher: Fits of Laughter (August 13/Elektra Records)
Kentucky-based folk band Bendigo Fletcher’s debut full-length album sounds like sipping sweet tea on the porch of an old, rundown ranch house in the middle of a field (I don’t like sweet tea, but for the sake of this analogy, I wish I did). By marrying folk, psychedelic rock and a hint of country twang, lead singer and songwriter Ryan Anderson effortlessly romanticizes the monotony of daily life: from working at Whole Foods to contemplating leaving civilization to live in nature to everything in between. In an interview with Holler Country, Anderson describes the title of the album, how it “represents the importance of finding laughter in the strange, unique and unexpected moments that come your way, through the roller coaster that is life.” After the past two years we’ve had, I think that’s exactly what we needed. – Kristin

Standout Tracks: “Sugar In The Creek,” “Buffalo Rodeo,” “Evergreen”

19. Foxing: Draw Down The Moon (August 6/Grand Paradise/Hopeless Records)
Indie-emo band Foxing evolved their sound yet again on their fourth and most pop-oriented album yet. From the gentle-guitar-to-screaming-from-the-sky overture “737” to pop banger “Go Down Together” to the mystical art-rock journey on closer “Speak with the Dead,” every song on the record is a world unto itself and is solidly enjoyable. If Foxing made this record for people who wanted to like them but couldn’t quite get into their previous records, they succeeded. – Brittany

Standout Tracks: “Go Down Together,” “Bialystok,” “Where The Lightning Strikes Twice”

Our Coverage: Foxing Shoots for the Moon & Shows Us How Small We Are Among the Stars on Draw Down The Moon

18. Adele: 30 (November 19/Columbia)
She’s baaaack. Five years after taking over the radio, the internet, music sales, basically everywhere you can listen to music, Adele made a splashy return with 30, the powerhouse singer’s fourth studio album. 30 centers on Adele’s divorce, motherhood, her experience with fame and of course, like all good Adele albums, heartache. One of the most interesting parts of 30 was seeing how Adele experimented with different genres and styles, like the Motown-twinged “Cry Your Heart Out” and with the incorporation of spoken-word voice notes in “My Little Love.” She, of course, also has the traditional belting ballads on “30,” including her first single “Easy On Me,” which I recently heard being screamed by someone standing still on a sidewalk as I walked down the same street, and that’s how you know Adele is back in a big way. – Erin

Standout Tracks: “I Drink Wine,” “Oh My God,” “To Be Loved”

17. Del Water Gap: Del Water Gap (October 8/Mom+Pop)
I first got artist and producer S. Holden Jaffe on my radar after he appeared on a track with Maggie Rogers titled “New Song,” which was released last year. I remembered his name, but didn’t stay up to date with his music until I saw him open up for Holly Humberstone earlier this year, where I instantly decided I was a fan of Jaffe’s. Just days later, the debut LP was released, and I was wholeheartedly convinced that the album was one of my favorites of the year. With poppy, ear worm choruses twinged with just the right amount of commercial appeal balanced with the appropriate amount of sad, each song on Del Water Gap tells a tale as old as time: though love is beautiful, it can also really suck. – Kristin

Standout Tracks: “Better Than I Know Myself,” “Perfume,” “Ode To A Conversation Stuck In Your Throat”

16. Inhaler: It Won’t Always Be Like This (July 9/Polydor Records)
It was a great summer for music. Watchhouse, Rostam, Japanese Breakfast all knocked me off my feet. As I was stumbling back to my feet after a metaphorical beatdown by the aforementioned artists, Inhaler slipped in with a crisp haymaker. *Ahem*…

Metaphors aside, It Won’t Always Be Like This took me by surprise. I had never heard of Inhaler before July—and what a mistake that was. I had been missing a sound that truly resonates with me. An Irish rock ensemble straight from Dublin? Sign me tf up. The energy of this group is astonishing, and their songs beg to be bellowed (seriously, try listening to “Slide Out The Window” without singing your heart out). It’s real fun finding groups as electric as Inhaler. – Sean

Standout Tracks: “It Won’t Always Be Like This,” “Slide Out The Window,” “Who’s Your Money On?”

15. Indigo De Souza: Any Shape You Take (August 27/Saddle Creek)
I had my fair share of fighting for albums this year. North Carolina’s own Indigo De Souza’s sophomore album Any Shape You Take was the one I probably fought for the most. Intrinsically strange and sometimes downright uncomfortable to listen to, this 38-minute body of work has completely forced me to reevaluate relationships in my life: ones of the past and ones in the present. Indigo manages to capture the full spectrum of emotions dedicated to the romantic and platonic partners in our lives: what it means to truly love someone and all the good and the bad that comes with it. In the beautifully underrated “Way Out” (a song that has the least streams on the Spotify version of the album), Indigo sings—almost groveling: “If you want to change, if you want to change / I’ll be here to love you / No matter what shape you might take / I’ll love you anyway.” – Kristin

Standout Tracks: “Darker Than Death,” “Hold U,” “Way Out”

14. Wolf Alice: Blue Weekend (June 4/RCA Records)
Blue Weekend tells the story of a night out from start to finish, with all the euphoria, wistfulness, isolation, and connection a single evening can hold. The band steps into finger-picked folk on “Safe from Heartbreak if You Never Fall in Love,” braggadocious punk on “Smile,” and piano-based balladry on “The Last Man On Earth.” But most of the album is melancholy synth-rock, songs that bring a dominant haze to the night in question. Through the smoke, Ellie Rowsell’s vocals shine and position her as a sort of a protagonist, an everywoman taking her night one step at a time, just like the rest of us. Wolf Alice has given us a thoughtful rock album with serious staying power with this one.
– Emma

Standout Tracks: “How Can I Make It Ok?,” “Lipstick on the Glass,” “The Last Man On Earth”

13. Pom Pom Squad: Death of A Cheerleader (June 25/City Slang)
When I first heard Mia Berrin’s vocals on lead single “Head Cheerleader,” I knew I was listening to something special. The track had just enough grit to satisfy the 13-year-old in me who thought I was edgy when in reality, I was like all the other preteens listening to pop punk and wearing colorful skinny jeans. But when Death of A Cheerleader dropped in its entirety, the edge became fully formed as a real existing characteristic to 26-year-old (now 27) me, reminiscing on lovers who’ve wronged me in the past and past me who has wronged myself.

I find something new to relate to every time I listen to this album: it’s brutally honest and uncensored and downright painful to listen to the lyrics about wishing you knew better when there’s certainly no way to have known better (“How do you expect me to figure myself out / when I cannot tell the difference between bad and good attention,”) Berrin wails on “Lux.” – Kristin

Standout Tracks” “Head Cheerleader,” “Cake,” “Lux,” and “Drunk Voicemail”

12. Magdalena Bay: Mercurial World (October 8/Luminelle Recordings)
Have you ever seen the Rosa meme from Brooklyn 99 that goes: “I’ve only had x for a week…” with her cradling something precious? That’s how I feel with Magdalena Bay’s Mercurial World. I’ve only listened to this album for approximately 60 days, but man, what a breath of fresh air. Some of these tracks are simply hypnotic, including “Secrets (Your Fire)” and “Hysterical Us.” It’s a deep project that continues to surprise with each listen, leaving me in awe after each and every play. The creative swirling of instrumentation and airy vocals blend into an inspirational harmony. This duo snuck into my rankings fairly late, but they’re a welcomed addition considering how highly the team ranked them. – Sean

Standout Tracks: “Secrets (Your Fire),” “Halfway,” “Hysterical Us”

11. Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever (July 30/Interscope)
Earlier this year I was feeling Billie Eilish fatigue. From watching her win seemingly every category at the Grammys year after year for the past few years, to listening to “Bad Guy” close to 528,456,926,296 times with my younger cousins, I was sadly over the singer’s debut studio album, which I really loved when I first listened to it. When Happier Than Ever was announced, I was ready to not listen to it, but then I did listen to it and it ended up being my favorite album of the year. Despite being only 19-years-old, Eilish possesses a wisdom and an insightfulness on the album that few artists ever really attain. The standout song on this album is the title track “Happier Than Ever,” which Eilish recently performed on “Saturday Night Live,” and it may be the best live performance of her career so far. Saying that, Eilish is still only a teenager and improving vastly with each release, so I’m sure she’ll be setting career-bests for decades to come. – Erin

Standout Tracks: “Happier Than Ever,” “Oxytocin,” “Billie Bossa Nova”

10. Dayglow: Harmony House (May 21/Very Nice Records)
Dayglow… Where to begin with Dayglow… Well, for starters, Brittany assigned the Dayglow writeup to me without skipping a beat, so that likely speaks volumes to how many times I bothered the team about the incredible one-man talent. Then there’s the fact that I played Harmony House almost exclusively several times a day, including to and from work. And I suppose you also have to consider that I listened to the advance, again almost exclusively, three weeks prior to the release…yeah, I really love this album. This solo project oozes charisma and passion. It may sound pastiche and cliche, maybe taking a strong dose of influence from the ’80s disco scene, but you know what? That’s a welcomed change of pace in a world ridden with less-than-desirable messaging being tossed around. It’s a feel good album through and through. It deserves your attention. – Sean

Standout Tracks: “Medicine,” “Close to You,” “Crying on the Dancefloor”

9. Ritt Momney: Sunny Boy (October 22, Disruptor/Columbia)
At its core, Sunny Boy is an album about rising and falling—and with that fall, finding a shattered illusion of what waits at the top. After explosive success with his cover of Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On,” Ritt Momney (aka Jack Rutter) reflects on two ascents in the album: finding fame and growing older. However, this album still speaks to the themes that TikTok’s Gen Z users relate to. The 22-year-old grapples with the same issues as many in his generation: imposter syndrome, falling in and out of love, and seeking purpose. Sunny Boy surprised listeners with its vulnerability and complexity and wowed with its range and soothing vocals. For this reason, it’s a top album of 2021. – Mitch & Brooke Saharovici

Standout Tracks: “Set the Table,” “HEADSTART,” “autoanon”

8. The War On Drugs: I Don’t Live Here Anymore (October 29/Atlantic Recording Corporation)
Almost every track on this album is a grower, which means you can slowly unwrap the record’s brilliance over and over. Jason Isbell-esque opener “Living Proof” probably contains the slowest, easiest-to-play guitar solo in the history of guitar solos, but its continuous build that never breaks embodies a yearning that perfectly sets up the rest of the record. Even if the synth break in “Victim” vividly brings Ryan Gosling/John Legend’s band from La La Land to mind and Adam Granduciel sings about dreams, waves, and change on every other song (including one actually titled “Change”), looping the tracks wear them in like something leather I can’t afford, the record’s weathered creases familiar and comfortable. – Brittany

Standout Tracks: “Living Proof,” “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Harmonia’s Dream”

Our Coverage: On I Don’t Live Here Anymore, The War on Drugs Grapple with Control & Find Renewal

7. Snail Mail: Valentine (November 5, Matador Records)
Lindsey Jordan’s sophomore album Valentine grapples with heartache, chaos, and regret, mixed with emotional maturity and experimentation. Valentine is undoubtedly one of the year’s best albums as Jordan accepts her past mishaps, delivers confessionals, and rediscovers romance. Dotted with synths, piano and guitars, Valentine is an indie triumph.
– Mitch

Standout Tracks: “Benjamin Franklin,” “Madonna,” “Glory”

6. Porter Robinson: Nurture (April 23/Mom + Pop Music)
Marking a drastic different musical direction from Porter’s 2014 Worlds, Nurture is an exceptionally crafted, visceral creation that evolved from a place of self-induced pressure and doubt. Created softly and gently over seven years, Porter was initially filled with uneasiness when making Nurture, fearing the project would fail to live up to the expectations set by Worlds. But over time, Porter learned to let go, take risks, and let the project unfold organically before him. Deeply emotional at times, Nurture reflects a recognition that life is wondrous in its beauty – even with moments of self-doubt – evidenced by soft pianos and more melodic choruses with his own vocals. It serves as a love letter, both to self and the people around him, and is a reminder that the act of nurturing takes time and patience, but it’s always worth the wait. – Mitch

Standout Tracks: “Get Your Wish,” “Something Comforting,” “Unfold”

5. Middle Kids: Today We’re The Greatest (March 19/Domino Recording)
Stellar in the most unexpected of ways, Middle Kids’ sophomore LP is a borderline triumph of pop mixed with tried-and-true indie. Songs like “R U 4 Me?” are powerful enough to get you up off your feet, while others, like “Summer Hill” are complex takes on lost love and redemption. A mellower take compared to their past garage rock sound, Today We’re the Greatest is tight, cohesive, creative, and took the Staged Haze team by storm and surprise. – Mitch

Standout Tracks: “Cellophane,” “Lost in Los Angeles,” “Some People Stay In Our Hearts Forever”

4. Lucy Dacus: Home Video (June 25/Matador Records)
There are few things more nostalgia-inducing than a VHS tape being gently placed in a VCR that you dug out of a closet and that’s what Lucy Dacus’ third studio album feels like—a piece of nostalgia dedicated to her childhood in Richmond, Virginia. Like all great works of art that are nostalgia-heavy, it’s easy to see your own life reflected in Dacus’ remembrances. Kristin and I both agree that one of the album’s highlights is folksy “Cartwheel,” about the complicated feelings of love and jealousy that can arrive between two friends. Despite the specificity to Dacus’ own life, it’s relatable as hell, emotional as hell, and good as hell. Lucy Dacus can do no wrong on “Home Video.” – Erin

Standout Tracks: “Cartwheel,” “Christine,” “Brando”

3. Halsey: If I Can’t Have, Love I Want Power (August 27/UMG)
Though I was a self-admitted Stan for Halsey’s debut album, Badlands, their music post-2015 and pre-2019 was forgettable (in my opinion)—minus their feature on the banger otherwise known as “Closer” with The Chainsmokers, compared to the way they came sprinting out of the gate as a Tumblr-turned-celebrity icon who wrote about sleeping with Matt Healy and openly gushed about their love for Taylor Swift. Manic got me interested again, but If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power got me totally enthralled. This may or may not be in part thanks to their collaboration with the great Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who both co-produced the album, but whoever got this idea approved from Halsey’s camp deserves all the gold stars. 

Clocking in at just under 43 minutes, IICHLIWP screeches through the 13 tracks with jarring synths, crisp drum lines, and aggresive guitar riffs: exploring “the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth…” and the “idea that me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can co-exist peacefully and powerfully,” Halsey wrote in an Instagram post. 

With IIHCLIWP, Halsey has become the mastermind of experimental rock: seemingly right at home in a sound that they attempted to do in albums past (see: Manic) but this time around, with fully formed conceptual ideas. I never thought I’d give Halsey my pick for Album of The Year, but it was a no brainer. 
– Kristin

Standout Tracks: “Easier Than Lying,” “Girl is a Gun,” “1121”

2. Japanese Breakfast: Jubilee (June 4/Dead Oceans)
Jubilee is a deftly constructed path, a guided tour through growth and healing, and its parts are just as electric as its whole. With her gentle yet captivating vocals at the forefront, Michelle Zauner takes the listener through the first nine tracks, nine tightly constructed morsels of emotion. They’re intricately produced, thoughtfully written, and smartly structured pop songs that explore everything from euphoria to loss. On the finale, “Posing for Cars,”  Zauner releases that delectable sense of discipline and lets all the messiness hang out in the headbanging outro. Jubilee is an album that demands a full, attentive listen- and then several re-listens. 

Even though the final minutes of the album are some of my favorites, the opening track “Paprika” always strikes me as one of the best track ones I’ve ever heard. When I saw Japanese Breakfast on the Jubilee tour this year, I got chills hearing Michelle sing: “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers, to captivate every heart, projecting your visions to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word?” With this release, I imagine she knows the feeling. – Emma

Standout Tracks: “Paprika,” “Slide Tackle,” “Posing for Cars”

1. Big Red Machine: How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? (August 27, 37D03D/Jagjaguwar)

Hearing the team agree that I should write about Big Red Machine may have been the most impactful moment of my time here with Staged Haze. We all agreed that How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? has something for everyone, as evidenced by our Top 15 Songs of the Year post. I definitely don’t pride myself on being a mathematician, but Big Red Machine appeared three times on that list of fifteen songs—that’s 20% of the post! If three of us connected with singular tracks from BRM.

BRM guided me through a challenging time in my life, which may be why I hold the band so dear to my heart. Aaron Dessner, Justin Vernon, and their eclectic supporting cast from the indie-sphere put on a performance I’ll never forget. They channel emotion from start to finish, blend a myriad of sounds into one cohesive unit, but most importantly… Dessner and Vernon remind me that it’s okay to bleed from the heart ー to accept those tumultuous times with open arms… and to thank them. How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? continues to fill me with joy, sorrow, and everything in between. I’m so thankful for this duo’s heart and passion. I’d recommend this wonder of an album to all. – Sean 

Standout Tracks: “Reese,” “Mimi,” “June’s A River”

Thanks for reading!

You can check out our previous year end lists here.

3 comments on “Staged Haze Presents: The 50 Best Albums of 2021

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