The “Best Of” lists that proliferate at this time of year are actually nothing of the sort. “Best” can't be quantified with music or any art form, especially at a time when so much music is not only being created, but freely streaming around the world. Even the most diligent critics only hear a fraction of what's out there. At best, these lists – including ours - serve as recommendations and commendations, a tip of the hat and a hardy salute to the hard-working musicians who created this music, and a roadmap for adventurous listeners looking to broaden their listening experience. No matter where we go from here, be sure to greet 2022 with a song in your heart and a smile on your face, and we'll get through the new year together. - Jim Testa, Editor
Jersey Beat 2021 Picks
Like the cars in a train wreck, this list is unranked.
The Sonder Bombs - Clothbound
The sophomore smash from this alt-rock quartet really wowed me on two fronts. The first is dynamic songs. They sway and move, propel forward with energy and then leave you hanging with quiet power. Listening to this makes your ears feel full, like they’ve just been to a holiday feast. The second element here are the passionate vocals from Willow Hawks. Always so strong and melodic, whether it’s a somber verse or a rousing chorus. It’s like if the Cranberries were from Cleveland.
Nanny - Can’t Remember, Can’t Forget
I reviewed this album for Jersey Beat many months ago, and if there’s anything I can add to that rave, it’s the (perhaps obvious) claim that the album consistently holds up to repeated listens. Every track is an alterna-power pop gem, and I’ve yet to tire of the hooky, infectious vocals of Hannah Mills. This is some lightning in a bottle stuff here.
Tuns - Duly Noted
Canadian trio featuring members of Sloan and Super Friendz. So yeah, this definitely delivers on the “super” part of a supergroup, but along with that there’s an air of good-natured confidence, the kind you only get from veteran performers who’ve already dug up enough jewels in their career, and are just doing it now for fun rather than having anything to prove. RIYL breezier 70s AM gold, the aforementioned bands, maybe early New Pornographers, and traditional northern politeness.
Teke :: Teke - Shirushi
I don’t know what those two colons mean, any more than I know how a Montreal ensemble is able to construct a Japanese psych-surf record that sounds so well blended. I love albums that twist and turn while also championing accessibility over weird artiness. I also love albums that can be “picked apart” by layers - the flute and horns, the vocals, the guitars - all rotate in and out of the spotlight. This album swirls around and yet anyone can pluck out any ingredient at any time and latch onto it. Brilliant.
Dummy - Mandatory Enjoyment
A lovely mix of motorik, post-space age pop, Krautrock, and male/female vocals. So yeah, Stereolab is a major point of reference, but as influences go that’s a pretty good one. Normally I reserve my “comfort food” pick of the year to be an old artist that released something good but familiar. This time around the soothing sounds come from a new act, and that’s pretty cool too.
Cheekface - Emphatically, No.
I credit the Beatles with coming up with the idea of “Let’s release an album, but have every song on it be a single”, but Cheekface get the Small Doses Award for an album full of singles that really should be listened to in a vacuum. The stream of one-liners are the aural equivalent to scrolling through a social media feed, and the sing-along choruses are begging to go viral (Seriously, how does “Emotional Rent Control” not have a million plays on Spotify yet?). But it’s the whole Pavement Jr. and slack af presentation that you absolutely love for 150 seconds, not 34 minutes. Every song deserves your time, one at a time.
Mikey Erg - S/T
A fully realized Mikey Erg venture. It doesn’t sound like his old band, though assuming the first time around he was trying to emulate the purveyors of indie punk two generations prior, he’s as close as he’s ever been here. I think a “Classic Mikey” tag is apt and comes from not only the quick-paced, frantic pop punk love letters, but also the unabashed covers songs of Pearl Jam and Green Day, the reference rock of “Denny’s Songs”, and the double shot downers at the end of side two that let him play around with sound. Mikey always wears his musical heart on his sleeve, this release is (deservedly) well-received because we all have this same shirt in our closet too.
Pony - TV Baby
90s alt-rock in the vein of Veruca Salt and Letters To Cleo is back in such full force the internet has barely bothered to generate listicles about it. 10 or 15 years ago we’d see “Ten Women-Fronted Bands You Need To Hear Right Now.” These days an editor with a grain of understanding would be like “Uh, there’s actually like 10,000 of those bands right now, so let’s just cover what music is out there, regardless of gender.” Which brings us to an issue of being spoiled for choice, in which I helpfully choose for you - listen to Pony. The grunge pop genre doesn’t allow a ton of wiggle room between original and derivative, so what it boils down to is songwriting. And this band writes good songs. Great songs, in fact. And plays them really well.
The Umbrellas - S/T
It’s indie pop on Slumberland. Do I need to write a longer review than that? I do? Ok then, San Fran jangle pop with male/female vocals, with songs about the seasons, flowers, and being happy. It’s very good and has a bit of variety to boot. If you like your pop to float like an orange leaf falling to the ground, they’ve got that. If you like more zippy numbers, they’ve got that too. I’m also going to type tra-la-la and the word xylophone to pad things out a bit more.
Seth Thomas - The Songs Of Seth Thomas
A nice, quiet, indie folk mini-album that really scratches the itch. Lite and melodic vocals, with lots of flourishes that add to the formula without losing the lo-fi charm. This is more like what would be called “bedroom pop” over typical singer-songwriter fare, and that’s probably why I keep coming back to it. There’s a long line of artists that I enjoy on this level (though as I’m thinking hard on it, mostly the early 00s output from): Iron & Wine, Damien Jurado, Pedro The Lion, Hayden, Pale Horse & Rider. That’s pretty good company.
Amythyst Kiah - Wary + Strange
The Copyrights - Alone In A Dome
The Courettes - Back In Mono
Django Django - Glowing In The Dark
Flying Raccoon Suit - Afterglow
Kiwi Jr. - Cooler Returns
New Pagans - The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots And All
V/A - 44 Golden Greats
Wild Pink - A Billion Little Lights
Night Battles – Year of No Days (Dark and beautiful. One of the best post-hardcore album since Quicksand’s 1993’s “Slip”.
St. Vincent – “Daddy’s Home” (Anne Clark a.k.a. St. Vincent continues to grow and thrive. A true chameleon in every sense of the word.
Cinema Cinema – “CCXMDII” (Ev & Paul continue to reward and surprise us at every turn. Crafting music that is musically muscular and heavy while challenging the limits of song crafting.
Mad Rollers – “Get Mad” (Italy’s Mad Rollers are a major reason I won’t give up on guitar driven rock and roll. With a nod to 70’s hard and glam rock. “Get Mad” has more bounce than an NBA championship game.
Marissa Paternoster – “Peace Meter”
Less guitar genius. More Paternoster genius. NJ’s Screaming Females front woman steps out on her own and soars to new heights.
Spit Boy – Complete Works
A complete collection of the East Bay hardcore band’s work. Absolutely stunning from the lyrics to the amazing musicianship. One listen had me reaching out to cofounder, drummer
Michelle Gonzales for an interview.
Turnstile – “Glow” (My favorite current hardcore bands expand their sound and colors outside the lines of what’s expected in the genre, adding a rewarding dose of melody to their delivery.
7 Seconnds – “The Crew” Reissue (Since the beginning, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the music of Reno’s 7 Seconds. “The Crew” will always represent the love.)
The Boatsman – “Versus the Boatsman” (Don’t let the name fool you. This is degenerate
rock and roll at its best.
The Worst – “The Worst of the Worst” (I first heard New Jersey’s The Worst during a road trip to a PA. record store. Essential first wave hardcore punk that should not and will not be overlooked.)
Kreig Koph – War on Terrorism
(Another first wave hardcore punk act. Kreig Koph were from Astoria, Queens. I was so excited about this re-issue of sorts being that they were part of my earliest experiences with hardcore. Like The Worst, their sound preceded the breakdowns and metal influences that came later.)
In Effect Fanzine Book
Chris Wynne’s fanzine was and is the place to get any and all the hardcore news and info you need. The book is tremendous, featuring each and every issue the fanzine ever printed. Colossal, to say the very least.
This is in no particular order at all, just an assortment of releases that made the nightmare of 2021 far more bearable.
Josie Cotton - Pussycat Babylon
Top Records for 2021
Assertation - Intermission
Oh the Humanity! - s/t
Hammerhed - Grand Currents
Crisix - "Pizza" EP
Sharp Violet - On Scenic Lake Copiague
The Mercy Kills - "New Rule" EP
Joey Cope - A Good Year to Forget
Snares of Sixes - Moonbladder
Honorable Mention and why not just include them?
Arab Strap - As Days Get Dark
Primal Age - “The Devil is Hidden in Shadows” single
We all had high hopes for 2021, after the shit storm that was 2020. But as 2021 began, we were still in the depths of pandemic restrictions, and live music was still absent from our lives, except for an occasional live stream event. But even those weren’t quite as satisfying as going out to a dimly lit club, lifting a few with your friends, and getting your eardrums blasted. Live music has slowly started to make a comeback in the past few months, but the shows are still not as plentiful and they’re as likely as not to be cancelled or postponed when someone in one of the bands tests positive for COVID-19. Thankfully, we still have our records to keep us company, and 2021 was a good year to make new friends with some great new ones. Here I humbly present some of the best new friends I made this past year. As always, these are presented in the order in which they were released, rather than in any order of favorites. - Paul Silver
Top 20 LP's
THE DIRTY NIL – Fuck Art (Dine Alone Records)
Top Records for 2021
Even as the band has evolved, they’ve maintained and upped the quality of their output. But fuck art. Let’s just have fun. And that’s what The Dirty Nil do best – have fun. Hail, hail rock and roll!
STIFF RICHARDS – State of Mind (Drunken Sailor Records)
YEAH! This LP goes from 0 to 60 in 0.1 seconds flat and doesn’t let up for a second. Stiff Richards fuses rock and roll, punk, and garage into a raucous manic frenzy of music.
CHRIS GARNEAU – The Kind (chrisgarneau.bandcamp.com)
This is a truly breathtaking, heartbreaking album. The arrangements are sparse, focusing primarily on dirge-like piano, with some additional instruments at times, sparingly used. Garneau’s vocals have tremendous range and express the emotions of the songs clearly.
ON A HIDING TO NOTHING – We’ll Probably Be Fine (onahidingtonothing.bandcamp.com)
On a Hiding to Nothing rip through nearly 40 minutes of raging pop-filled punk. Not only are the tight as all fuck, their songs are bright, poppy, and powerful. The result is nothing short of amazing, yet they make it sound effortless.
TRIGGER CUT – Rogo (triggercut1.bandcamp.com)
Imagine taking post-hardcore of bands like Quicksand or Refused, melding it with the intensity and artistry of a Steve Albini band like Big Black, Shellac, or Rapeman, and then mixing in the spastic melodic sense of 90s Dischord bands like Fugazi or Circus Lupus, and you’ve got an inkling of what you’re in for once you drop the needle into the lead-in groove.
COME CLOSER – Pretty Garbage (Pirate’s Press Records)
Eleven songs of lush indie rock, catchy melodies, quiet touching moments, and jangly pop that borders on pop punk from the unlikely pairing of J Wang with Pirate’s Press Records.
LAPÊCHE – Blood in the Water (New Granada Records)
Lapêche play music that’s part grunge, part pop, and part dream-pop. The music is somewhat heavy, but it’s also got a floating dream-like quality. And the songs’ melodies have a pop sensibility. There’s a lot in here that will sound familiar, but there aren’t many bands that sound quite like this.
HARKER – Axiom (Wiretap Records)
In comparison with their previous LP, these songs are harder, edgier, more frantic and chaotic in many cases. There’s more variety, and the melodic portions are even stronger.
DATBLYGU – Pyst (Hate Records)
Though recorded in 1990, this fresh rerelease deserves its spot here, and the record sounds like it could have been written a decade earlier, as massively creative post-punk permeates every song. The vocals are all in Welsh, a musical language in its own right, but it makes it impossible to understand what the songs are about. This, however, doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of the tracks one iota.
MATT CASKITT AND THE BREAKS – Welcome Home (Bypolar Records / Defiant Robot Records / Swamp Cabbage Records / Tiny Dragon Music)
“Welcome Home” is aptly titled, as it’s a return of Matt’s songwriting to the style that Caskitt played so well, but moved away from on their last LP. This is the album I was hoping for. It’s the album we need.
NEIGHBORHOOD BRATS – Confines of Life (Dirt Cult Records)
You can’t be a fan of punk without being a fan of Neighborhood Brats.
THE RAGING NATHANS – Waste My Heart (Rad Girlfriend Records)
These Ohioans just keep getting tighter and more creative. There’s a variety of song styles here, from pounding rapid-fire punk tunes to gentler pop punk to dark almost skate-punk sounds.
ST. LENOX – Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times (Don Giovanni Records)
This time out, Choi provides his observations on the need to find something to believe in as the world becomes more and more chaotic. And once again, his songs leave me more than a little choked up.
ERIK NERVOUS – Bugs (Drunken Sailor Records)
Erik Nervous plays some fantastic old school punk and hardcore, top notch songs that blur the border between punk rock, new wave, and hardcore. The music is tight and bright, fast and furious.
DESCENDENTS – 9th & Walnut (Epitaph Records)
Classic early Descendents songs, modern professional recording, and seasoned musicians? This will go down as one of the top Descendents LPs of all time.
TYPHOID ROSIE – Queen Of Swords (typhoidrosie.bandcamp.com)
This is bright, poppy, and punky stuff, and man, this is a fun record to listen to!
KITNER – Shake the Spins (Relief Map Records)
The Kitner aesthetic is light and lilting, with mesmerizing arrangements and vocals that sound vaguely desperate. One doesn’t need to scream and roar to feel. These ten tracks are packed with passion.
THE DODOS – Grizzly Peak (Polyvinyl Records
This album is both simple and complex at the same time. As a duo, the band’s arrangements are necessarily fairly bare and spartan. But the songs are still intricate, instrumentals and vocals intertwining in opposing melodic lines to create something quite lovely.
THE PULSEBEATS – Lookin’ Out (FOLC Records)
This is a banger of a record! The Pulsebeats incorporate elements of garage, pop punk, and power pop into their songs, injecting them with tons of energy and enthusiasm. It’s infectious, too, because these songs are going to make you want to jump around like a mad person.
STATES OF NATURE – Songs To Sway (Sell the Heart Records)
States Of Nature will sound both familiar and unique, because they bring together a whole bunch of disparate influences and blend them together into something quite new. I hear elements of DC style emo and post-emo, I hear post-hardcore, I hear 80s post-punk, and I hear power pop and indie rock. Pop hooks vie with hard-edged licks on a lot of the songs, making for a fascinating musical texture that you don’t hear from other bands.
TOP 8 EP's
SEAN TOBIN – St. Patrick’s Day Forever (www.seantobinmusic.com)
New Jersey’s raucous troubadour, Sean Tobin, gives us an EP full of songs that tell stories, about the COVID lockdown and the loss of a beloved institution, as well as a couple of extremely well-done covers. This especially deserves to be in this list just for the most incredible version of “The Parting Glass” I’ve ever heard.
CRUZ RADICAL – Death-Train EP (cruzradical.bandcamp.com)
These are the last two Cruz Radical songs to be recorded, and they’re raw and powerful punk fucking rock.
GHOULIES – Reprogram (Goodbye Boozy Records)
This stuff is mind-blowingly chaotic and bubbly and sugary sweet at the same time, synths running to overload along with manic guitars and desperate vocals.
THE BOLLWEEVILS – Liniment and Tonic (Red Scare Industries)
The Bollweevils are a thoroughly Chicago punk band, playing an energetic hardcore injected with a heavy dose of pop melodies. And the Chicagoan in me is giddy over the first new music from the band in seven years.
JORDAN KRIMSTON – All Commodities (Dark Horse Coffee Records)
Jordan Krimston is back with a new EP featuring six songs that show a definite growth in his songwriting and arranging. Though they’re poppier, the songs on this EP have more complexity and depth than those on “Bushwhacking.” And I liked the LP a lot. I like this EP even more.
CITY MOUSE – Magnitude (It’s Alive Records)
New music from City Mouse is always a reason to celebrate; I just wish we could celebrate more often.
POSTAGE (Dirt Cult Records)
Postage play up-tempo tunes that are aggressive and abrasive in just the right ways, with lots of speedy lyrics and hooks popping left and right.
JUKEBOX ROMANTICS – Fires Forming (Sell The Heart Records)
It starts out fast and furious from the first song and never lets up one iota. The songs are full of energy, loaded with melodic goodness, ready made for sing-alongs, inspirational, and joyful.
ACID DAD – Take It From The Dead (reverberationappreciation.bandcamp.com)
Top 10 Albums (alphabetical order)
Months before Todd Haynes reawakened the nation's Velvet Underground Appreciation Society, these veteran NYC scenesters showed how it was done. Acid Dad's lysergic perambulations borrow elements of the VU's druggy enchantment overlaid with a modern takes on psychedelic garage rock.
BEN KWELLER – Circuit Boredom (benkweller.com)
2021 saw the return of many artists after extended hiatuses, including (on January 1) the first new release from Austin's Ben Kweller in nine years. Like Conor Oberst, Kweller has matured without surrendering his boyish innocence and charm, as he exhibits on this charming collection of modern alternative country, Americana, and a few pop-rock bangers. Welcome back.
THE DESCENDENTS - 9th And Walnut (Epitaph)
Before there was a Milo (or Steven or Karl,) the first lineup of the Descendents wrote and performed but never recorded. So in 2002, drummer Bill Stevenson reunited original bassist Tony Lombardo and guitarist Frank Navetta and, with Milo Aukerman on vocals, laid down these tracks, written over 40 years ago. All the elements of latterday Descendents are here: Short blasts of catchy punk rock, snotty adolescent irreverence, SoCal hardcore, surfy drums, and Beach Boys harmonies. Sadly, Navetta passed away in 2008, but this slice of hardcore history makes a welcome addition to the Descendents canon.
THE HOLD STEADY – Open Door Policy (theholdsteady.bandcamp.com)
Shlubby Craig Finn's Everyman short-story lyrics remain a given, but the Hold Steady becomes a much better band with Franz Nicolay on keyboards, as evidenced by 2019's welcome return to form, Thrashing Through The Passion. Now a sextet, the ensemble as a whole has never sounded as cohesive and focused as on Open Door Policy, which offsets Finn's sardonic lyrics about bottoming out in life and love (now often delivered in a relucatant first person) with intricately textured compostions that broaden the songs' emotional palette. This used to be the world's best bar band; now, it's music for those of us who only get to the bar once in a while, but still find a million ways to fuck up.
THE JEFFREY LEWIS & PETER STAMPFEL BAND - Both Ways (The Great Lost 2017 Double-Album) (jeffreylewis.bandcamp.com)
Just as this inspired multi-generational Lower East Side weird-folk duo were finishing this album, Peter Stampfel lost his voice to dysphonia, and there went 2017. Then came, well, you know... lots of other stuff. If you haven't heard the first two Stampfel/Lewis albums, you should find them, immediately, but in the meantime, here finally are the many joys of Both Ways: A musician's manifesto, a murder ballad, two anti-Internet screeds, a couple of folkie barn dance romps, and several inspired covers, all delivered with Stampfel & Lewis' trademark caterwauling vocals, folkie instrumentation, and offkilter humor.
JUSTUS PROFITT – Speedstar (Bar-None)
On his sophomore release, the L.A.-based Profitt moves beyond the lo-fi Elliot Smith squall of his debut for jangly guitars, sultry vocals, and self-aware, post-romantic songwriting. Most of the music we heard in 2021 reflected the isolation and despondency of our pandemic year, and there's certainly a sadness running throughout Speedstar. But there's also a sense of coming out the other side, an inherent optimism (call it poptimism,) reminiscent of Chris Stamey and Alex Chilton at their most buoyant.
THE COPYRIGHTS – Alone In A Dome (Fat Wreck)
Nearly 20 years into a career of sustained excellence, Carbondale, Illinois’ Copyrights face down their fate with a concept album that deals with being exactly who they are, a small town, hard-touring pop-punk band skirting mainstream success. On their first album in seven years (and first for Fat Wreck,) there's rancor and disillusionment here, but not bitterness, And maybe even a little hope.
SHAME – Drunk Tank Pink (shamebanduk.bandcamp.com)
The enduring influence of Wire and The Fall can be heard in a new generation of manic, pissed- off UK post-punk, epitomized by the charismatic, sexy, pulse-pounding assault that is Shame. Vocalist Charlie Steen and guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith rage like uncaged predators, with a sound that's more textured and nuanced than the band's excellent debut without losing an iota of its post-adolescent fury.
TOO MUCH JOY – Mistakes Were Made (toomuchjoy.bandcamp.com)
A quarter century after their last album, Too Much Joy returned in 2021 not only intact but still as tuneful and entertaining as ever. Some of these songs could date back to the band's Nineties heyday, like the joyful ode to “Snow Days” or “Flux Capacitator,” a goofy tune about time travel. But the shadow of the Trump presidency and the covid pandemic can be keenly felt on the disillusioned “Something To Drink About,” the yearning “More Of The Stuff I Like,” and the hopeful “Just Around The Bend.” And in perhaps the most 2021 gesture of the year, there's a secret track to thank the Patreon donors who made the whole shebang possible.
VIAGRA BOYS – Welfare Jazz (vboysstockholm.com)
These Stockholm miscreants led by the provocative rasp of Sebastian Murphy pump No Wave skronk, New Wave dance pop, and bluesy swagger into their killer second album, focusing their vitriol and sleaze squarely on themselves. Dogs provide a recurring theme - used as a metaphor for the human condition, I suspect; although maybe they just like canines better than people. The energy is infectious, the wit biting, the grooves compelling, and the ending unexpectedly charming, with a jazz-inflected cover of John Prine's whimsically self-deprecating “In Spite Of Ourselves.”
HUDSON COUNTY'S TOP 15 ALBUMS
I write about music from Jersey City, Hoboken, and the rest of Hudson County every week for the Jersey Journal and NJ.com. Here are my favorite releases from those columns.
1. Forget The Whale – You. Me. Talk. Now (soundcloud.com/forget-the-whale)
2. Blue Vervain – North Carolina (bluevervain.bandcamp.com)
3. Val Emmich – Mean (valemmich.bandcamp.com)
4. Tim Foljahn – I Dreamed A Dream (timfoljahn.bandcamp.com)
5. The Cucumbers – The Desk Drawer Tapes (deena.bandcamp.com)
6. Crush Limbo – Utility Drawer (crushlimbo.bandcamp.com)
7. Supermutt – Sinners Boast (streaming)
8. June & The Pushas – The Great Reset (anxiety or anticipation) (juneandthepushas.bandcamp.com)
9. Commons 2 – Suburban Lifestyle Dream (listentothecommons.bandcamp.com)
10. Blueox – S/T (blueox.tv)
11. Leel – 13XXII (leelbeats.com)
12. Billion Man Rebellion – Ghost Lineage (billionmanrebellion.bandcamp.com)
13. Reese Van Riper – The Swamps Are Burning
14. Psychiatric Metaphors – Body Snatchers (psychiatric-metaphors.bandcamp.com)
15. Ruby Bones – Laser Tooth Tiger (Mint 400)