They called it 2021, but it really felt like an extension of 2020, didn’t it? Everything feels like one big blob now, where things are bad and good and in between, and the lines that separate them are starting to blur. The novelty of wearing sweatpants to work has worn off, and the news is an unrelenting firehose of discouraging bullshit, and screens are our rulers, and when do we get to feel the warmth of normal human connection again? But hey … at least there’s music. Music rules, and the past two years have been the perfect time to let punk rock permeate your life. How you define “punk” is up to you; the list below leans toward inclusivity, with murky post-punk, pop songs played fast and muscle-bound hardcore all coexisting together. With honorable mentions to Mentira, Lysol, Thirdface, Downhaul and One Step Closer —and a few other records that could’ve made the cut—here are the 20 best punk albums of 2021.
Listen to Paste’s Best Punk Albums of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.
Melbourne, Australia punk quartet Amyl and The Sniffers came back with a barn burner of a sophomore album, the follow-up to their 2019 self-titled debut. Amy Taylor and company co-produced Comfort to Me with Dan Luscombe, writing their new record during Australian Bushfire season, not to mention COVID-19 quarantine. The result is ferocious, melodic punk rock that seems to push in every direction at once, but the band’s explosive energy belies a surprising degree of heart: “I’m not looking for trouble / I’m looking for love,” Taylor sings on “Security,” somehow managing to maintain a pocket of serenity in the eye of the band’s chaotic storm. “This album is just us—raw self expression, defiant energy, unapologetic vulnerability,” Taylor said in a statement. “It was written by four self-taught musicians who are all just trying to get by and have a good time.” —Scott Russell
Everything you read about The Armed’s latest album ULTRAPOP will mention the mysterious nature of the Detroit-based band’s true lineup. They’ll cite made-up names and untrustworthy interviews, falsified press releases and photos featuring models standing in for whoever’s behind such an uncommonly catchy and charismatic strain of hardcore punk. Here’s what we do know: Whoever is pulling strings and pushing boundaries for The Armed is doing a hell of a job. What’s most impressive about ULTRAPOP is not necessarily the killer riffs, the pummeling rhythms or the plentiful melodies, though all of those are consistently thrilling. What’s most impressive is the way this band brings together different, disparate styles in a way that sounds seamless and natural and new, even if others have done it before. When The Armed announced ULTRAPOP last winter, de facto leader Dan Greene was quoted as saying the album “seeks, in earnest, to create a truly new listener experience. It is an open rebellion against the culture of expectation in ‘heavy’ music. It is a joyous, genderless, post-nihilist, anti-punk, razor-focused take on creating the most intense listener experience possible.” With ULTRAPOP, they’ve done exactly that. Whoever “they” are. —Ben Salmon
“A mouthful of bad LSD and worm dirt,” says the Bandcamp description for Cemento’s Killing Life. “Perfect for pandemic summer.” Indeed, this Los Angeles quartet—which includes members of Smut and Smirk—makes grim, grayscale post-punk packed with melodies strong enough to punch their way out of the shadows. Prickly barbs of guitars, restless bass lines, thudding guitars and dead-eyed vocals … it’s all here, and it sounds like Joy Division smeared all over the inside of a sealed tomb. Call it bummer pop for bummer times. —Ben Salmon
There’s a reason just about every review of The Chisel’s debut album references football hooliganism and/or quaffing pints in pubs. Retaliation is a distinctly British punk record made by British punk lifers—including Chubby himself, sans gang—and released by London punk label du jour La Vida Es Un Mus. Accordingly, The Chisel never take their foot off the gas, zooming through 13 bracing blasts of classic U.K. hardcore that as hooky as they are combative, and that give voice to working-class issues in a way that feels exigent and essential. —Ben Salmon
Great electric guitar tone. You know it when you hear it, and you’ll hear it all over Future Forecast, the first full-length album from Melbourne, Australia’s latest great band, Civic. Everything about Civic is no-frills; these are just plain punk songs, featuring hard-charging rhythms, bouncing bass lines, buzzsaw guitars, occasional saxophone and the ever-simmering, sneering vocal style of frontman Jim McCullough. Did we mention the guitars on this record? My goodness, they sound incredible through headphones. —Ben Salmon
Daegu, South Korea rockers Drinking Boys and Girls Choir caught our attention with a standout virtual SXSW 2021 set that we called “a blast of mosh-inspiring, yet melodic K-punk from minute one.” Written and recorded in lockdown, their self-produced second album, the follow-up to 2019’s Keep Drinking, is their most urgent music yet, with the trio injecting a new level of political consciousness into their ultra-nimble skate-punk sound. MJ, Meena and Myorori reckon with gender politics, internet age exploitation and collisions of the two, like the heinous Nth Room case, imbuing their breathless thrash and glue-trap hooks with a righteous fury. Drinking Boys and Girls Choir may sound sweet, but they won’t hesitate to call it out as the world around them sours. —Scott Russell
Between the time I opened a Google Doc for this list and the final save and send to my editors, Every Time I Die broke up. It was messy—it still is messy—with accusations and legal actions broadcasted on social media. If this turns out to be the final act from these Buffalo, New York metalcore heroes, it’s one hell of a way to go out. Radical is a suffocatingly dense album, with zigzagging guitar riffs, whiplash rhythm changes, chugging breakdowns and prodigious melodies packed in wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Lead throat-shredder Keith Buckley is in fine form here, too, delivering a ferocious vocal performance fueled by his frustrations with our climate crisis, endless wars, systemic racism and police brutality, the pandemic, religion, capitalism … you name it, Buckley is pissed about it. “We’re living in the golden age of bastards. Despairing is painless and peace is a lie,” he screams in “Desperate Pleasures.” It’s hard not to agree with him. —Ben Salmon
There are murky, disorienting listening experiences, and then there’s the music of FACS, the Chicago-based noise-rock trio that emerged from the hiatus of guitarist Brian Case’s (killer) old band Disappears. Present Tense is FACS’ fourth album in four years, and after filling the first three with menacing, claustrophobic clatter, the band opens up the arrangements here to let some light and air in. Don’t be mistaken: This is not FACS’ pop record. It’s still dark and taut and slightly unnerving. But on Present Tense, you can hear more approachable song forms surfacing from the murk. —Ben Salmon
Post-punk lovers have a new act to follow in Fake Fruit, a Vancouver-bred, Bay Area-based quartet whose self-titled debut is out now on Rocks In Your Head Records. The band cite Pink Flag-era Wire, Pylon and Mazzy Star as influences, and Fake Fruit bears that synthesis out: You’ll find the first two acts’ versatile, hard-edged, bright- and fast-burning guitar rock (“Old Skin,” “Yolk”), as well as the last one’s engrossing quiet-loud dynamics (“Stroke My Ego”). But that specific stylistic fusion is only a jumping-off point: “Keep You” finds singer and guitarist Hannah D’Amato’s melodic vocals overlaying hypnotic shoegaze guitars (courtesy of Alex Post on lead) and a clattering low end (Martin Miller on bass, Miles MacDiarmid on drums), while album closer “Milkman” finds D’Amato sharing vocal duties over deft guitar harmonics and a motorik backbeat. And an X factor in all this is Fake Fruit’s mordant lyricism: “My dog speaks more than you did tonight,” D’Amato sneers on “Keep You,” a laugh line on an album that shows serious potential. —Scott Russell
On both their records to date—2018’s Springtime and Blind and this year’s Between the Richness—Boston rockers Fiddlehead have delivered a potent combination of anthemic melody, hard-rock muscle and poignant lyricism; the band, featuring members of Have Heart, Basement and others, “blend post-hardcore punch with emo’s openhearted catharsis,” as we previously wrote in praise of standout single “Million Times.” Between the Richness packs hard-won wisdom—vocalist Pat Flynn got married, had a son and marked the 10-year anniversary of his father’s death, all between the band’s two albums—into 25 minutes of explosive, deeply personal rock ‘n’ roll that manages to look back on life’s peaks and valleys without ever taking its foot off the gas. —Scott Russell
In a just world—an alien bogland on Planet Punk, perhaps—The Gobs would be the consensus Artists of the Year. This is, after all, a band of unknown weirdos from Olympia, Washington, who released four three-song demos in March, April, May and June, followed by two three-song EPs in the fall. And I kid you not when I say it’s all killer and no filler. Stack it all up and you’ve got 18 tracks of pedal-to-the-metal proto-punk supercharged with synths, unrelentingly melodic and completely muffled in the very best way. 1-2-3-4!! collects the four demos on one cassette which, upon playback, reveals The Gobs to be master pop-song craftsmen, shrouded in mystery and hiss. —Ben Salmon
More than 10,000 miles separate Australia from the German home base of Erste Theke Tontraeger, and yet the tastemaking record label is doing as good a job of documenting the Down Under punk scene as just about anyone. This year, the highlight of that work is Casino, the new album from Byron Bay band Mini Skirt, whose scruffy punk rock churns and chimes as singer Jacob Boylan shares wisdom and warnings in his heavy grit sandpaper voice. Thanks to his heavy accent and his idiosyncratic turns of phrase, he kind of sounds like the male Courtney Barnett from the wrong side of the tracks: “The weird innate ability we have to not want to kill each other,” he yells during “Brigantine St.,” the album’s catchiest tune. “That makes me smile!” —Ben Salmon
Just over halfway through Confines of Life is a pair of back-to-back tracks that let you know exactly where this classic California pop-punk band is coming from: “Harvey Weinstein (Is A Symptom)” is a scorching hardcore song about the pervasiveness of misogyny, and “All Nazis Must Die” is a surf/spy music-flavored instrumental about, presumably, how all Nazis must die. Together, they are the most lyrically direct and sonically unique songs, respectively, on Neighborhood Brats’ third album. Travel either direction from the pair and you’ll run into track after track of exuberantly played, endlessly catchy and socially conscious pogo-punk that splits the difference between The Ramones and Sleater-Kinney. At the center of it all is Jenny Angelillo, who is not only the singer in Neighborhood Brats, but also lightning in a bottle, a force of nature, a tattooed tornado and a total badass who terrifies Nazis without saying a word. —Ben Salmon
Although the band’s 2019 debut album, Somewhere City, is great in its own right, GAMI GANG captures Origami Angel at their apotheosis. This is a double album that showcases, in the parlance of Pokémon, the band’s evolution. The lyrics aren’t profoundly deep, but thats doesn’t mean GAMI GANG itself doesn’t speak to something grander than what it initially insinuates. After all of the strife that’s occurred over the past couple of years, Origami Angel have provided us with something of a salve. As Ryland Heagy and Pat Doherty sing in their shout-along gang vocals on one of the album’s standout tracks, “We’ll be so caught in the moment.” GAMI GANG catches them in their moment. —Grant Sharples
The most interesting thing about Palberta’s new album Palberta5000 is most certainly the transformation of this New York City trio from relentlessly noisy, DIY post-punk heroes into an archetypal indie-pop band, albeit one with a backburnered proclivity for chaos and razor-sharp edges framing its soft, sweet center. But the most amazing thing about Palberta5000 is that Palberta—Ani Ivry-Block, Lily Konigsberg and Nina Ryser, who are known to take turns on bass, drums and guitar—effectively captured that transformation in a four-day recording session at the Hudson Valley studio of engineer Matt Labozza, who also worked on the Philly band Palm’s 2018 art-rock banger Rock Island. Four days! In just four days, Palberta made the biggest leap of its already productive and distinctive life, and turned out an album that both honors the band’s past and turns a corner toward a bright future. —Ben Salmon
If you don’t speak Spanish, the third album from Madrid trio Rata Negra is a real trip. The band’s sound is poppier than ever—especially the irresistible choruses of the sparkling “El Escarmiento” and the surftastic “En La Playa”—but by all accounts, the lyrics teem with desperation and frustration over the inequities and indignities of modern life. In a way, there is almost a sense of guilt that comes with enjoying Rata Negra’s music while remaining blissfully ignorant of their message. Don’t worry, though … the guilt will melt away when you hear the band kick into “Cuando Me Muera,” a breathtaking take on ‘60s girl group pop complete with direct lifts from “Be My Baby.” R.I.P. Ronnie, and Viva la Rata Negra! —Ben Salmon
Nearly two years after COVID-19 first shut down large swaths of society, the musical landscape is littered with “quarantine albums” created at home, because there wasn’t much else to do. Restless Kansas City musician Ian Teeple recorded his Silicone Prairie project’s debut album in isolation, but not because of a global pandemic; he did so because he loves making records, and to fill time between his activities with KCMO punk bands like Warm Bodies and The Natural Man Band. If Silicone Prairie is Teeple unfiltered, then the guy is quite a character. The 13 songs on My Life are trebly and warped, often sounding like they’re playing on an old boombox with a dying battery. They shimmy and sway, like a U.F.O. careening through space without its navigational system. And they’re full of surprises: an unexpected stretch of eccentric twang here … the zip-zap of a laser gun there … a synth tribute to dance music pioneer Patrick Cowley, just for good measure. Through it all, Teeple’s DEVO devotion comes through loud and clear—always a good thing. —Ben Salmon
Nestled in here among a bunch of loud, fast and aggressive records is Spllit Sides, an album that sounds like it was sitting up high in the tallest oak tree in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, and then it fell out, bonking its head on every limb all the way down. SPLLIT is two people known only as Urq and Marance, and their brand of art-punk is built from marimbas, sharp corners, synthesizers, sudden tempo changes, arid funk, out-of-tune (and in-tune) guitars, spoken words and other strange things. SPLLIT’s music is odd but not off-putting, cacophonous and curiously melodic at the same time. A nifty trick by some nifty tricksters! —Ben Salmon
Jittery, yelping punk bands wear out their welcome quickly, because jittery, yelping punk rock is best when served in small doses. Kudos, then, to Spread Joy, whose charming 10-track debut album speeds by in 14 minutes. But this is not just a case of less is more. The Chicago band feels more focused and dynamic than many of its contemporaries, with guitarist Raidy Hodges providing the Wire-y jangle and Nick Beaudoin (bass) and Tyler Bixby (drums) in lockstep, pushing Spread Joy forward. And then there’s singer Briana Hernandez, who does yelp, but she also sings – in funny voices and in German! – and she does it all with uncommon swagger. —Ben Salmon
One of the most conspicuous musical trends of 2021 has been quiet introspection. Across genres, artists have folded inward. Clairo relinquished the indie-pop of her 2019 debut in lieu of a softer style that evokes ‘70s singer/songwriters like Stevie Nicks. Vince Staples deserted his high-energy delivery (and producer Kenny Beats abandoned his frantic arrangements) for something more lo-fi and muted. Though records such as these are captivating in their own rights, it’s also interesting to hear artists go against that current. That’s exactly what the Baltimore-based hardcore band TURNSTILE have done on their latest album, GLOW ON. With production from Mike Elizondo (now Grammy-nominated for his work) and co-production from TURNSTILE’s vocalist Brendan Yates, GLOW ON is the group’s most fully realized work yet. They use the full-throttle blueprint of their sterling sophomore album, 2018’s Time & Space, and expand upon it. GLOW ON puts TURNSTILE’s sheer amount of ambition on display, and they deliver on that ambition with a record that widens their scope. Throughout its 15 tracks, their newly expanded sound never falters, and it sees them toying with fresh effects and textures while still maintaining their forceful approach. At the same time, TURNSTILE move forward without losing sight of what made them so intriguing to begin with. GLOW ON isn’t just one of the best hardcore albums of the year; it’s one of the best albums of the year in general. —Grant Sharples
Listen to Paste’s Best Punk Albums of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.