In 2021 indie rock was a guitar-led extravaganza with artists drawing from an ever-widening musical well. These are the best indie rock albums in the year 2021;
Jane Weaver – Flock [Fire]
English singer Jane Weaver, exponent of cosmic folk, psych-rock, indie-rock, and all things avant-garde, has gone poppy on her 11th album, Flock. It’s pop that’s inspired, so she claims, by Lebanese torch songs and 1980s Russian aerobics records rather than Steps or the Spice Girls, but still, you know, pop. Make way, then, for uplifting melodies, great hooks, catchy riffs, and DJ-pleasing beats, covering a heck of a lot of ground from European pop to disco too glam to R&B. “Heartflow” is a chiming and jubilant tune that combines a girl-group sound with some Stereolab-style trippiness. “The Revolution of Super Visions”, on the other hand, is the kind of inventive funk song that Prince used to do in his heyday, with an arresting refrain: “Do you look at yourself and find nothing?” Elsewhere, Weaver outdoes Goldfrapp in the glam-pop stakes with “Solarised”, all adding up to a much-needed shot in the arm for folks wary of the world’s problems.
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5 Goat Girl – On All Fours [Rough Trade]
With On All Fours, South London post-punk band Goat Girl does more than fulfill the potential they showed on their 2018 debut. This is by way of darker and less exuberant songs than before, which merge ferocious guitars, futuristic electronics, and hypnotic harmonies with a heavy dose of environmental angst. Indeed, on this collection of 13 tracks, they prove to be a group who’ve found their sound and are now contemplating the big league (in indie terms, of course), to the interminable beat of the climate crisis. The scale of the quartet’s ambition and confidence is no more evident than on the astounding “Sad Cowboy”. This begins life in spacey synth territory reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, before some propulsive guitar work ushers in a rumbling rhythm, singer Clottie Cream’s wonderfully languid vocals on the theme of going insane (“Slippin’ my hold / It comes and it goes”), and, to finish, a synthy dance vibe worthy of Hot Chip. It’s how Goat Girl so effortlessly mixes such seemingly discordant styles that makes this album so exciting. An intense rock groove meets a mournful chorus on the post-apocalyptic “The Crack”. A ridiculously bouncy tune meets a massive instrumental freak-out that sounds like the end of the world on “Badababa”. Hell, the negative effect of environmental catastrophe on the human spirit never sounded so exhilarating.
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Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under [Polydor
Sam Fender‘s second album, Seventeen Going Under, is precisely the kind of rousing and inspired record to send the shoegazing masses packing. Right from the off, it’s bold, urgent, ambitious, and utterly distinctive. Yes, Fender takes an obvious cue from Born to Run-era Bruce Springsteen, but he applies his big, anthemic, saxophone-soaked sound to his working-class upbringing in North Shields in the post-industrial dockland of northeast England. Therefore, in his impassioned and angry Tyneside tones, he applies a narrative drive to the album while taking the listener to many bleak and hopeless places that only marginalized northern lads know about. Indeed, it’s the sharp autobiographical details in the lyrics that make it. “The fistfights on the beach.” Being “drenched in cheap drink and snide fags”. His mother “floored by the letters and the council rigmarole”. These combined with some majorly arresting lines: “I’m not a fucking anything or anyone!” Good tunes to boot!
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CRAWLER opens up on Joe Talbot in the cold of February, droning over an increasingly menacing guitar track. By the song’s end, he’s repeatedly asking whether we’re ready for the storm and, truthfully, not much can get you prepared for what IDLES put out on this release. Sometimes hilarious and consistently dire, CRAWLER is a tour through a vast tapestry of sounds and attitudes, leading to one of those albums that feels more geographic than sonic. There’s an austere three-four groove in “The Beach-land Ballroom”, the thrashing dance-punk of “The Wheel”, the baffling track “Progress” that starts with a hazy twinkle and ends in a fuzzed-out abyss. CRAWLER‘s always-shifting labyrinth is not only an aesthetic achievement — it’s also able to map the emotion of two fraught years.
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Lucy Dacus – Home Video [Matador]
On Home Video, Lucy Dacus elevates her storytelling through a more intimate, groove-oriented sound than we had heard on her breakout album Historian. Lyrically, Dacus manages to combine narrative with powerful one-liners (“the future is a malevolent black hole” on “Cartwheels”) while remaining plainspoken. On “Thumbs”, she floats through a violent revenge fantasy that will stop you in your tracks, but “VBS” provides an evocative summer camp memoir that tries to straighten out a spiritual journey in retrospect. These are the contradictions that you’d have to live in to create an album that feels like you lived a whole life by the time it’s over — and that’s precisely how home videos feels.
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Guided by Voices – It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them! [GBV Inc.]
Well, that’s interesting.” That’s what I said four or five times when listening to “Spanish Coin”, the opening track on the 30th Guided By Voices record. This feeling of surprise seems to define the way we should be listening to GBV at this point: there’s no way to predict what’s going to happen next, so let’s just enjoy what we have. It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them! is the kind of work we get from a prolific band; a group that puts out an album every four years wouldn’t try something so odd, but GBV’s approach of throwing every whimsical and dark idea and the wall brings us here. “I Share a Rhythm” is a representative track — something that feels both familiar and incomprehensible, so that by the time you feel like you understand it, the song is already over (and replaced by “Razor Bug”, a nonsense unaccompanied vocal track). Don’t take it too seriously, and you just might have a great time.
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Snail Mail – Valentine [Rough Trade]
Singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan, under the banner of Snail Mail, found initial success in 2018 with loud, deftly played guitar songs like “Heat Wave” and “Pristine”, which combined lo-fi production, emotional vocals, and soul-baring lyrics. Yet on her second album, Valentine, she’s recorded only two or three songs that easily qualify as “indie-rock”. That’s because she’s already striving, at age 22, to be a classic songwriter in the mold of Jenny Lewis, working hard to marry her whisper voice and confessional lyrics to any sound she sees fit, from indie-folk to R&B to string ballad. And you know what? She’s succeeding.
The evidence is Jordan getting a hell of a lot off her chest on ten stylistically diverse and compelling songs on such subjects as the downside of her newfound fame, her unlucky love life, and her stay in rehab. She rocks out intensely on both the title track and “Glory”, the former possessing the mother of all hooks in the line “So why’d wanna erase me, darling valentine?” and the latter proving to be a wonderful slice of shoe-gaze with its sinister “get me high in your hotel room” sense of surrender. Then there’s the darkly synth-driven “Ben Franklin”, the floaty dream-pop of “Forever (Sailing)”, and one of the most delicate and sad expressions of eternal love you’re ever likely to hear in “Mia”.
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