2021 in Review: What We Liked in Music

It’s been another weird year for music. While things have started looking up with venues opening back up in the latter half of the year and bands getting back into the swing of things, COVID and manufacturing issues still took a toll on releases. However not all was doom and glom. Bandcamp continued their Bandcamp Friday initiative, giving their share of sales to the artists, most bands proved that safe in-person live shows are possible even with the ongoing pandemic, and no matter how weird times are: great music always finds a way.

As we do every year, the Third Coast Review music team picked their personal favorite albums instead of a typical best of list. These are albums that have stood out in each individual reviewer’s mind as one that should be shared and experienced. Hopefully you find something new to listen to as we embark on a brand new year!

Bnny
Everything
It’s been a long wait for Bnny’s debut album. Bnny is the incredible project of Jess Vicius (featuring her sister Alexa Viscius and friends Tim Makowski and Matt Pelkey) and years of jokes at live shows putting the release in the far and distant future made the anticipation feel like torture. But sudden relief came in late August when Everything came into the world and it truly was everything you expected from Jess Viscius. Beneath the quick song structures and effervescent jangle, Everything is made up of immensely beautiful, equally sad, love songs that wrap their arms around you. Written in the wake of her partner Trey Gruber’s passing (whose album is another perfect piece of Chicago music), Everything is as devastating as it is wonderful to listen to.
-Julian Ramirez

Clairo
Sling
While most of her cohorts are embracing the ’90s, Clairo, one of lo-fi’s reigning queens, is glancing back a little further. Sling, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter’s first proper follow-up to her 2019 debut Immunity, is awash in 1970’s sensibility; a quiet chamber-folk album that’s laden with flutes and saxophones, pianos and whispered confessions, like Carole King reimagined for the bedroom pop set.

Clairo’s albums are a clear deviation from the early viral hits like “Pretty Girl” and “Flaming Hot Cheetos.” Those songs were minimalist and retro in a way that was more ironic than reverential; you can almost imagine the singer shrugging as she delivers lines like “I could be a pretty girl / I’ll wear a skirt for you.” But on Immunity, sincerity begins to triumph over sarcasm. That album, both ethereal and groovy, is sketched out in cinematic scenes of heartbreak and missed connections. Sling takes it one step further, announcing its unabashed intentions from the first moment and never letting go.

On album opener “Bambi,” Clairo sings “I’m stepping inside / a universe designed / against my own beliefs,” the piano announcing a tipsy melodic line that just barely balances the hushed, lilting vocals. The result is bittersweet reflection in a pastel hue, landing somewhere between Taylor Swift’s technicolor theatrics and Phoebe Bridgers’ shadowy melodramas.

Elsewhere Clairo evokes other contemporaries, like on the excellent, somber “Blouse” that lyrically plays out like an alternate take of Lucy Dacus’ “Night Shift,” even as it sonically evokes Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s “Our House.” What elevates Sling, though, from a mere genre-exercise is the insistence on candor despite the homage. In tracing the line between modern lo-fi and earnest AM radio hits of the past, Clairo has unearthed the key ingredient of an enduring pop confection: Honesty writ large, with a cherry on top.
– Matthew Nerber

Cold Gawd
God Get Me The Fuck Out of Here 

Last year I covered Cold Gawd’s debut, which definitely exceeded my expectations from California-based artist Matt Wainwright. On God Get Me The Fuck Out of Here, Cold Gawd hones in everything that made last year’s debut so memorable. There’s a more refined sound on the whole album, which is refreshing for a shoegaze album in this day and age. “You Should Be Fine Down There” almost comes off as a Deftones cover with the abrasive bass and shredding of guitars, until you hear the soothing voice of Wainwright pierce through the noise. Easily one of my favorite releases this year from an artist who continues to shine with little to work with.
-Brandon Smith
Editors Note: as of this posting, Cold Gawd’s God Get Me The Fuck Out of Here is not readily available on streaming. But I highly suggest you listen to his debut EP and Covers EP

Floatie
Voyage Out

Floatie’s debut album Voyage Out filled the void of Math Rock albums missing from the indie rock sphere. It fits right in with their Exploding in Sound labelmates Knot and Pile. The off-tempo time signatures and melodic riffing makes it impossible to not nod your head to every song even if you can keep up. Voyage Out gives you a little something you don’t hear from most local bands but gives you enough to want more. Hopefully Floatie has a year loaded with lots of shows across the US.
– Brandon Smith

Gaspard Augé
Escapades

Reminiscent of Justice-like sounds and production, Escapades invites listeners to Augé’s first solo album comprising prog rock, cinema soundtrack, hints of horror, disco, and other tastes. Over the course of the 12-track journey, from “Welcome” to “Reverie,” the general mood creates a personalized channel to interpret and experience emotions to “stimulate the imagination.” The album’s cover art complements this personalized music journey: a modern-like canvas with a chrome electric rod fallen from the sky, and Augé himself jumping to safety. What does it mean? You determine the message.

Without De Rosnay, we get a sincere view of who Augé is after 15 years with Justice. He’s a man of simplicity, genuine art, and sharing what he likes–not necessarily what should be deemed as “good” or “not good.” For Justice fans, it’s another way to appreciate expansion to the Ed Banger Records’ sound palette. Tracks such as “Force majeure,” “Hey!,” and “Belladone” should stand out immediately.  With those not as familiar with Justice, again, the individualized journey makes this production an intriguing one for leisure, a road trip, or easy listening during a weekend afternoon. Augé notes, “especially today when you have so much, like, visual stimulation,” he says, it’s important “to have these moments where you can just get really deep or even daydream.” So, what are you waiting for? Grab your favorite pair of headphones and jump into your escapade.
– Michael Kocourek

Joe Pug
The Diving Sun
As a collection of songs, The Diving Sun doesn’t stray too far from Joe Pug’s well-worn songwriting path. Here are the ballads, the lovelorn reveries, the slide guitar and harmonica that have been a staple since his debut EP Nation of Heat. But as an album, The Diving Sun falls in line with a project Pug seemingly started with 2015’s Windfall and 2019’s The Flood in Color. Whereas Pug’s first record Messenger (and, to a lesser degree, 2012’s follow-up The Great Despiser) was eager to cram as much sound and texture on top of his mournful vocals, the latest efforts have stripped the fat, leaving the songwriting front and center, like a delicate wood carving freshly finished but not yet stained.

Brevity serves Pug well here. The songs rarely breach the 3 minute mark, and are built around his muscular acoustic strumming, steady drums, and frequent collaborator Greg Touhey’s warbling electric guitar lines. Lead single “Crescent Bridge” begins like Born to Run-era Springsteen, with a bright piano line that gives way to Pug’s harmonica, bursting through like a sunrise. Lyrically he’s in familiar territory: Alone at a bar, trading glances with another lonely heart. “She’s a true bride / Bright side / Parliaments and brown eyes” goes the refrain, delivered with winking fatalism.

And even when trafficking in melodrama, like on the Eagles flavored “Free Rider,” or regret-tinged “Look Out Desdemona,” The Diving Sun remains buoyant. Thanks could be extended to producer Kenneth Pattengale, one half of the duo The Milk Carton Kids who also worked with Pug on The Flood Color. When discussing their first collaboration, Pug said Pattengale was a ruthless cutter of material; the resulting albums are testaments to that editorial hand. By the time Pug reaches the final lines of “Ten Miles of Mercy,” the piano driven closing lament, it feels perfectly timed; like catching a sunset just moments before it dips below the horizon.
-Matthew Nerber

Macie Stewart
Mouth Full of Glass
If it isn’t incredibly obvious by now, I’m a huge fan of Macie Stewart. Whether it’s her multi-instrumental improvisational work or her amazing art rock project OHMME with Sima Cunningham, Stewart just has a way with creating music that speaks to me. Mouth Full of Glass is another amazing addition to her catalog, delving into the tenderest side of her sound. Almost straight up baroque pop at times, Mouth Full of Glass really puts a spotlight on lush instrumentation while Stewart’s voice as it soars higher than ever. The album is full of local musicians like Ben Lamar Gay, Lia Kohl, Sen Morimoto, Ayanna Woods, and Dustin Laurenzi seamless blending their talents with Stewart.
– Julian Ramirez

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Mia Joy
Spirit Tamer
From its wonderful hazy instrumental start to its twinkling ethereal end, Spirit Tamer is utterly engrossing. Mia Joy, the musical pseudonym of Mia Roche, lets all her emotions breathe life into her lyrics. Roche’s gentle and welcoming voice does wonders as she details battling loneliness, embracing hope and love, or looking to the stars and planets for answers. Spirit Tamer is a pristine slice of dream pop that gives its entire self to you. The final song, a cover of Arthur Russel’s “Last Night Together,” leaves listeners with a lasting impression, cementing itself with Roche’s gorgeous musical sensibilities.
– Julian Ramirez

Magdalena Bay
Mercurial World 

Magdalena Bay has had a sporadic release of singles since 2017 but in 2021 that all changed. Mercurial World is an album some might classify as traditional pop or hyper-pop. It all depends on what your perception of synth incorporation is in today’s music. A duo that has recently incorporated a full band into their live performance delivered one of last year’s most overlooked albums. The vibe of this album fills me with joy from the playful production to the catchy pop choruses. It doesn’t matter what your preference of music genre is Mercurial World is worth a listen during Chicago’s winter.
– Brandon Smith


Naked Raygun
Over The Overlords
Naked Raygun released their first new album in DECADES (yes, plural) and not only is it not a disappointment, it can hold its own against the group’s entire catalog. This ain’t a cash-in by a band past its prime, it’s a proud declaration from a band that never stopped being a potent force … they just stopped recording new albums for a while. But what were the chances of a legendary band coming up with a new album that stood a chance of becoming legendary itself? Trick question! It’s Naked Raygun, so the odds were always in their favor.
– Jim Kopeny

Neal Francis
In Plain Sight
Neal Francis’ sophomore solo effort knocked me literally off my feet—it’s that good—and it’s a new direction for a musician known primarily to the funk and jam band scenes. But on In Plain Sight Francis brings in edgier elements and a scuzzier sound thanks to Dave Fridmann’s particular brand of mixing songs. The collision of Francis’ ears for both melody and groove gets just muddied up rough to take the sparkle of this collection and burnish it into something far sturdier and longer lasting. It sounds like a new beginning without completely abandoning the past, and it’s working very well for Francis.
– Jim Kopeny


Neptune’s Core
Evolving
While still very early on in their careers, you can see the bright future Neptune’s Core has. Made up of two pairs of sisters (Jacqueline & Kaitlin Cywinski and Hannah & Richter), Neptune’s Core dishes out fun and incredibly catching songs with a pretty strong range. Evolving only furthers that with a collection of songs that jump from genre to genre while maintaining the band’s bright sound. Elements of pop punk and even alt-country find themselves infused in Neptune’s Core sound, giving you a little taste of their influences,. “Turning Red” is pure pop ballad while opening track “Drowning” takes you down an indie rock road toward a boisterous second half full of pounding drums and blisteringly strong vocals. Every track offers something different and inviting, giving you a ton to appreciate from these four great musicians.
– Julian Ramirez

Old Joy
Trash Your Life
On Old Joy’s Trash Your Life, Alex Reindl leads a troupe of musicians to bring his scrappy yet undeniably poppy tunes to life. He describes the music as “scum-pop” but his music glistens and shines, even if the edges sometimes feel as if blood could be drawn if a song wasn’t handled properly. And while the theme of the album’s lyrics are dark and sometimes uncomfortably grounded, the execution evinces such a joy for life that even the darkest songs come across as affirmations, if you let them settle in. It’s as if the songs are saying, “We made it, and so can you!”
– Jim Kopeny


Porches
All Day Gentle Hold! 
Aaron Maine of Porches has come a far way since 2013 when he was often jumbled together with other NY artist such as Mitski and Frankie Cosmos. All Day Gentle Hold! From the jump on “Lately” Porches cuts to the chase of his current mindset. “My vibe has been pretty fucking crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, lately, lately, lately, lately” Maine’s monotone voice is soothing over production that gets literally crazy.
There’s always been an eagerness for Porches to transition to a much more refined sound over the years. This album encapsulates their goals as does their tour, where they’re slated to play Chicago’s House of Blues. All Day Gentle Hold! delivers what we all might need at least once a week over the past year.
– Brandon Smith

Vince Staples
Vince Staples 
Vince Staples resurfaced from what many perceived as rap hibernation with his first album since 2018.
In 2021 with his self-titled album Vince Staples. For someone who hasn’t been extremely active in the rap game for the past few years Vince delivers some of the best bars of his career coincided by some of his most joyful production.  “Missions, miss my brothers (yeah), die for colors. Quidditch, catchin’ snitches (snitch), do him vicious.” On “Taking Trips” only Vince Staples could combine reminiscing about gang colors and Harry Potter’s Quidditch in a calm and assertive voice.
– Brandon Smith

Stranger Ranger
No Light In Heaven 
No Light In Heaven really plays into its title from the jump. It sets a tone with mixtape opener “In Hell” that could be mistaken for an early Skrillex demo from 2010. But before you ever get the chance to really enjoy those moments, the mixtape shifts to the band’s prior history of sad songs for DIY boys who love PBR. Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that because in all honesty I think this is a love mixtape for a very specific audience. Regardless, this mixtape is a quick listen but will loop you back in to discover a new meaning.
– Brandon Smith

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Third Coast Review Staff

Posts with the Third Coast Review Staff byline are written by a combination of writers, credited by section within the article.