AF 2021 IN REVIEW: Our Favorite Albums & Singles of The Year

If you went into 2021 with high expectations, you weren’t alone. Even if it was hard to feel optimistic this time last year, it certainly seemed as if things could get no worse. Live music did return, after all – though with the appearance of Delta, and now Omicron, the joyful noise comes with a caveat. After sixteen months of having to livestream shows (fun, but not the same) little could stop me from attending shows in person; wearing a mask as an extra precaution felt like no big deal, even if no one else was doing it. But luck (and vaccines) feel like the real reason I emerged unscathed from dozens of risky experiences, and with performances on the horizon canceled once again, maybe it’s wise to enter 2022 with slightly lower expectations.

There’s always recorded music, anyhow. Maybe the tumult of the year just has me personally feeling a bit unfocused, but it seems as though I barely scaled the mountain of this year’s musical offerings without getting a bit buried in the avalanche of releases – ones that had been pushed back, ones that were created in lockdown. I’ll be playing catch up well into the new year, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t gems I connected with almost immediately, and very deeply. And that’s what I’ve heard across the board, from those in the industry as well as casual music fans – is that our favorites this year stayed on heavy rotation, as we latched onto music that accurately reflected our moods, which evolved moment to moment and of course happened to be different for all of us at any given time. What does that mean for year-end lists? Audiofemme has always compiled an eclectic list, including favorites from each of our contributors without overall rank – consider any repeats to be the best of the best. But this year, the list seems even more diverse, meaning there’s a wealth of weird and wonderful music below to discover, dear reader. Thanks for sticking with us through another wild year.


  • Marianne White (Executive Director)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) PinkPantheress – to hell with it
      2) Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
      3) Low – Hey What
      4) Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
      5) Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
      6) Dawn Richard – Second Line: An Electro Revival
      7) Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
      8) aya – im hole
      9) Flock of Dimes – Head of Roses
      10) Tyler, the Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
    • Top 5 Singles:
      1) Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”
      2) Loraine James (feat. Eden Samara) – “Running Like That”
      3) Hand Habits – “More Than Love”
      4) Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen – “Like I Used To”
      5) Julien Baker – “Faith Healer (Half Waif Remix)”

  • Lindsey Rhoades (Editor-in-Chief)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) Low – Hey What
      2) Tirzah – Colourgrade
      3) Nana Yamato – Before Sunrise
      4) Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell
      5) Jane Weaver – Flock
      6) Tonstartssbandht – Petunia
      7) Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
      8) Squirrel Flower – Planet (i)
      9) Veik – Surrounding Structures
      10) Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
    • Top 10 Singles:
      1) Sharon Van Etten & Angel Olsen – “Like I Used To”
      2) Special Interest – “All Tomorrow’s Carry”
      3) Squid – “G.S.K.”
      4) Julien Baker – “Bloodshot”
      5) Mandy, Indiana – “Bottle Episode”
      6) Remember Sports – “Pinky Ring”
      7) Cedric Noel – “Comuu”
      8) Gustaf – “Mine”
      9) June Jones – “Therapy”
      10) MAN ON MAN – “Stohner”

  • Mandy Brownholtz (Marketing Director)
    • Top 5 Albums (in no particular order):
      Spellling – The Turning Wheel
      King Woman – Celestial Blues
      Macy Rodman – Unbelievable Animals
      Marissa Nadler – The Path of the Clouds
      Kinlaw – The Tipping Scale
    • Top 3 Singles (in no particular order):
      Often – “Deep Sleep”
      Mannequin Pussy – “Control”
      Spice – “A Better Treatment”


  • Alexa Peters (Playing Seattle)
    • Top 10 Albums:
      1) Wye Oak – Cut All The Wires: 2009-2011
      2) Dori Freeman – Ten Thousand Roses
      3) Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning
      4) Fawn Wood – Kåkike
      5) Carmen Q. Rothwell – Don’t Get Comfy / Nowhere
    • Honorable Mention: Mike Gebhart – Co-Pilot 
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Doja Cat (feat. SZA) – “Kiss Me More”
      2) Mitski – “Working for the Knife”
      3) DoNormaal – “Baby May”

  • Cat Woods (Playing Melbourne)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Deap Vally – Marriage
      2) Mod Con – Modern Condition
      3) Laura Stevenson – Laura Stevenson
      4) Joan As Police Woman – The Solution is Restless
      5) Black Country, New Road – For the first time
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Black Country, New Road – “Sunglasses”
      2) Lana Del Rey – “Dealer”
      3) jennylee – “Tickles”

  • Liz Ohanesian (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Hackedepicciotto — The Silver Threshold
      2) Saint Etienne — I’ve Been Trying to Tell You
      3) L’impératrice — Take Tsubo
      4) Pearl and the Oysters— Flowerland
      5) Nuovo Testamento — New Earth
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Midnight Magic – “Beam Me Up” 
      2) Jessie Ware – “Please”
      3) Gabriels – “Love and Hate in a Different Time (Kerri Chandler Remix)”  

  • Gillian G. Gaar (Musique Boutique)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Dolphin Midwives — Body of Water
      2) Sarah McQuaid — The St. Buryan Sessions
      3) Low — Hey What 
      4) Witch Camp — I’ve Forgotten Now Who I Used to Be 
      5) Full Bush — Movie Night
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Maggie Herron — “Sweet Lullaby”
      2) Sleater-Kinney — “High in the Grass”
      3) ONETWOTHREE — “Give Paw” 

  • Jason Scott (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Jetty Bones – Push Back
      2) M.A.G.S. – Say Things That Matter
      3) Lyndsay Ellyn – Queen of Nothing
      4) Kacey Musgraves – star-crossed
      5) Christian Lopez – The Other Side
    • Top 5 Singles:
      1) Hayes Carll – “Help Me Remember”
      2) Jake Wesley Rogers – “Middle of Love”
      3) Adele – “To Be Loved”
      4) Carly Pearce – “What He Didn’t Do”
      5) Kacey Musgraves – “what doesn’t kill me”

  • Michelle Rose (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Alex Orange Drink – Everything Is Broken, Maybe That’s O​.​K.
      2) Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
      3) Kacey Musgraves – star-crossed
      4) Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World
      5) Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Blonder – “Ice Cream Girl” 
      2) Mitski – “The Only Heartbreaker”
      3) Kristiane – “Better On Your Own”  

  • Victoria Moorwood (Playing Cincy)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Polo G – Hall of Fame
      2) Benny the Butcher & Harry Fraud – The Plugs I Met 2
      3) Megan Thee Stallion – Something For Thee Hotties
      4) Pooh Shiesty – Shiesty Sessions
      5) blackbear – misery lake
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Benny the Butcher & Harry Fraud – “Thanksgiving”
      2) Lil Nas X (feat. Jack Harlow)  – “INDUSTRY BABY”
      3) 24kGoldn (feat. Future) – “Company”

  • Jamila Aboushaca (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Kacey Musgraves – star-crossed
      2) Snoh Aalegra – Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies 
      3) Lil Nas X – Montero
      4) Darkside – Spiral
      5) Blu DeTiger – How Did We Get Here EP
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Kaytranada (feat. H.E.R.) – “Intimidated”
      2) Kacey Musgraves – “simple times”
      3) Snoh Aalegra – “In Your Eyes”

  • Sophia Vaccaro (Playing the Bay)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Aly & AJ – A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun
      2) Julia Wolf – Girls in Purgatory (Full Moon Edition)
      3) Megan Thee Stallion – Something For Thee Hotties
      4) Lil Mariko – Lil Mariko
      5) Destroy Boys – Open Mouth, Open Heart
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) daine – “dainecore”
      2) Julia Wolf – “Villain”
      3) Doja Cat – “Need To Know”

  • Sam Weisenthal (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
      2) Katy Kirby – Cool Dry Place
      3) Mega Bog – Life, and Another
      4) Ada Lea – one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden
      5) Olivia Kaplan – Tonight Turns to Nothing
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Charlotte Cornfield – “Drunk For You” 
      2) Dora Jar – “Multiply”
      3) Joe Taylor Sutkowski, Dirt Buyer – “What Luck, Goodbye”  

  • Sara Barron (Playing Detroit)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) PinkPantheress – to hell with it
      2) Summer Walker – Still Over It
      3) Erika de Casier – Sensational
      4) Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
      5) Adele – 30
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) Lana Del Rey – “Dealer”
      2) Liv.e – “Bout It”
      3) SZA – “I Hate U”

  • Eleanor Forrest (Contributor)
    • Top 5 Albums:
      1) Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
      2) CL – ALPHA
      3) My Life As Ali Thomas – Peppermint Town
      4) Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
      5) Remember Sports – Like a Stone
    • Top 3 Singles:
      1) FKA twigs (feat. Central Cee) – “Measure of a Man”
      2) Sabriel – “Pulse”
      3) Lexie Liu – “有吗炒面 ALGTR”

Emma Ruth Rundle is at Her Most Emotionally Naked On Fifth Album Engine of Hell

Photo Credit: Mason Rose

Emma Ruth Rundle documents a chilling musical catharsis on her latest LP Engine of Hell; in the first fifteen minutes alone, she’s “down at the methadone clinic” on “Blooms of Oblivion” or lamenting the sadness of the world and the grief of death on “Body.” Pairing her world-wearied voice with piano alone proves deeply moving. The instrument is a sympathetic body; it tinkles, thunks, sings, shrinks away from touch or yields to the warmth of Rundle’s fingers. As far as comparisons go, there’s something here of Patti Smith’s throaty, poetic spoken word-style delivery and Tori Amos’ early work: confronting but beautiful songs digging through the emotional violations of her past.

When we speak, Rundle has taken time away from her Portland home to stay in a cabin near Netarts, Oregon. It is a different type of being alone to the one that instigated Engine of Hell. “Isolation was a was a huge piece of this album,” she explains; she began writing it while living in Kentucky with her (now-ex) husband, far from her roots and her rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. It was so alien to her that it sent her hurtling into a morass of memories and addictive behaviors. “The original title of this record was actually A Strange Midwest, which was about waking up in a weird place, alone, without any sense of self. The lockdown definitely pushed things further than maybe they would have gone otherwise. But I think a lot was leading up to this,” she says.

The album was recorded in Stinson Beach, California in December of 2020 at Panoramic House with longtime co-producer Sonny Diperri. “It was Sonny and I for ten days alone in the studio,” she remembers. “It was eerie, and intense and great. I did a lot of crying. We would track and then we’d listen, because we had to listen to choose the takes.”

All the guitar songs, and some of the piano, couldn’t be separated because Rundle had purposely recorded those songs as live performances. The process meant that Rundle would record several takes, listen back with Diperri, then do it again.

“The last few days, I added a bunch of overdubs with these keyboards they had lying around, only to decide that 90% of that was garbage and that the record didn’t need it,” Rundle adds. “It needed to be as naked as possible.”

It is the starkest of her records, the most bare-faced, openly wounded, humbling work of art. Sober today at 38, and grateful for it, Rundle’s formative musical influences make perfect sense – she recalls 1996 Tori Amos opus Boys For Pele as a spiritual sister to this album, along with Sibylle Baier’s Colour Green and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.

“There’s also this record, Monotony Fields by Shape of Despair, a metal album that had so much despair on it, which gave me permission to just express that feeling and not be embarrassed about singing about how intense that state can be,” she adds. “Those were the records for me that set the ship sailing, got the boat in the water for this album.”

Her lyrics and her music have always felt emotionally genuine, candid and poetic, but not like Engine Of Hell. It follows her 2020 release, the deep, dark May Our Chambers Be Full with Louisiana metal band Thou, her third solo album On Dark Horses in 2018, and her harrowing 2016 sophomore album Marked for Death, largely informed by Rundle’s ongoing battle with adenomyosis – a condition in which damage occurs to the uterine wall, causing heavy bleeding and chronic pelvic pain, similar to endometriosis.

The LA-born and raised singer-songwriter’s musical career began in earnest when her mother took her to music store McCabe’s and allowed her to pick any instrument to learn. An adventurous choice – the Celtic harp – was swapped for a guitar, as well as the added bonus of 13 years working at McCabe’s thereafter. Her mid-twenties saw her enter a prolific period, self-releasing her first solo efforts Electric Guitar: One in 2011, and the darkwave-style Somnambulant, in 2013. Credited to The Headless Prince of Zolpidem, it revealed a new, disconcerting soundscape. She was also active in several bands at the time, with credits on four albums and two EPs across three projects: the Nocturnes, with Dave Clifford, Paris Patt and Julian Rifkin; post-rock quartet Red Sparowes; and Marriages with Greg Burns and Andrew Clinco.

But it was her official debut album Some Heavy Ocean (2014) that cemented her relationship with record label and management company Sargent House and its founder, Cathy Pellow. Rundle recorded it at the label’s in-house studio, taking up residence there during the sessions. It proved one of her most introspective, empowering experiences.

“I’ve been working with Cathy for over a decade. Cathy had my back and believed in me, in her way, since I was much younger. She took good care of me, she let me live in her house more than once… I’ve lived with Cathy five times because I’d been a mess and she’s always had the door open… that’s been invaluable in my life,” Rundle says. “For a long time, Cathy was my soul family – other than my sister, she was my person. I love her very dearly; our relationship goes so much further than business stuff.”

Rundle says Engine of Hell was hard for Pellow to hear. “It made her uncomfortable and she was concerned about how this might be received and if it would negatively affect my career, but she supported me,” she says. “Cathy and Sargent House never get involved… I make music, I turn it into them, and they have a reaction, which is incredibly supportive.”

While Pellow’s concerns are easily understood, Rundle’s discussions of mental health and revelations of trauma and addiction weave neatly into the cultural climate of the moment. Recurrent lockdowns and global fear and isolation have only amplified topics like these, already emerging in public forums and social media prior to the pandemic. To talk about these issues openly feels like a step toward recovering our collective emotional homeostasis. But to call the album cathartic would be too simplistic, not honoring its multi-tonal palette, its layers of memory, grief, healing, and suffering, and its deliberations of identity that can’t be neatly wrapped into lyrics and expunged. “I think it can be all the things without having to be just one,” she responds. “I feel like it has been cathartic. It was interesting writing it, then having finished it and listening to it now.”

She’s continued to expand on the album’s motifs by directing a pair of haunting videos: “Return” sees her playing both an Angel and Death; “Blooms of Oblivion,” co-directed with John Bradburn, offers some literal weightlessness to the song’s heavy subject matter. “There’s some catharsis there, especially making the videos and really getting to process these things in new and different ways,” she adds. Rundle’s been developing her own visual lexicon since she took up painting as a teenager; her most recent exhibition was part of a group show at London’s Parliament Tattoo commemorating the thirty-year anniversary of the release of iconic Hole debut Pretty On The Inside. One of thirty artists asked by Courtney Love to contribute work (which can be viewed in 3D here), proceeds from the auction benefit Treasures Foundation and Clean Break women’s charities.

No matter the medium, Rundle recognizes that achieving catharsis will be a lifelong quest for her. “I have some really intense trauma and tendencies towards some of the darker colors of the palette when it comes to mental health and emotional states of being that I don’t know will ever go away. It’s a thing that needs to be managed, and there’s maintenance involved… nothing is necessarily resolved,” she says. “I do think that making Engine Of Hell really helped me, in so many ways, transform my life. It was a quest to get back in touch with myself, where I came from, the context for my existence, because I lost touch with that, and I spent so long numbing myself out. I wanted to figure out what had happened and why, and why I was like this.”

Her candour on the album is liberating for herself and for this writer, and hopefully, for listeners too. The thrumming, pared back acoustic guitar on “The Company” is a plaintive ballad, wielding so much feeling in the spaces between notes, her sad humming lament. The guitar, melodically brighter and fuller on “Razor’s Edge,” is the tender caress to ease the sharpened edge of the lyrics, reflecting on the loss of youth, though it remains lyrically bleak. “There’s no need to check the weather as my winter never ends,” she sings. “I’ll be dancing on the razor’s edge, then.”

As they put the tracklist in order for Engine of Hell, Rundle and Diperri listened back to the songs once again. “It was startling to hear the album,” confides Rundle. “It was like, woah, am I really going to do this and let people hear this? It’s pretty intimate and a little bit uncomfortable to listen to. Later, I decided that’s exactly what I set out to accomplish, so that is a success. Whether it’s any good doesn’t matter. I had set out to do a thing and done it, without judgement. There was a goal, we set out to do it, we did it, there it is.”

Follow Emma Ruth Rundle on Instagram for ongoing updates.

SHOW REVIEW: Bosnian Rainbows @ Highline Ballroom

Bosnian-Rainbows-3_652x367Longstanding The Mars Volta fans packed into Highline Ballroom this February 19th in anticipation of guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López‘s new music project.  The performance marked the band’s fifth show under the Bosnian Rainbows billing.  Rodríguez-López surprised fans throughout the night with his embrace of new ideas and fresh performance approach.  The night’s first twist was the presence of an opening band, which Rodríguez-López is usually known to forgo.

Opening band Marriages is most accurately described as mood-rock.  Singer Emma Ruth Rundle’s haunting, smoldering vocals are lulling yet carry weight. Her voice floats amidst power driven drum beats and an undertow of guitar slides, pitch bends, and rock guitar distortion.  The band is comprised of Greg Burns, Andrew Clinco, and Emma Ruth Rundle, who previously performed together in the post-rock collective Red Sparowes.  The group signed to Sargent House label in 2011 and released the album Kitsune in May 2012.

Marriages sound is uptempo yet darkly crafted and slightly unhinged.  The band is subdued in comparison to the following act, yet embodies similar emotional content.  The overall structure of the songs did not vary greatly, and I would have loved to hear the musicians step out into more experimental or unconventional instrumentation and delivery.  “Ten Tiny Fingers” was a stand out song in the set, with catchy guitar riffs and stark, punchy lyrics.  Other times the guitar effects create a wash of sound that carries over from song to song, and leaves less room for contrast.  At times the music delves into a sort of hypnotizing soundscape that results in some beautifully vulnerable moments.  Marriages has a strong sense of identity that will continue  to carry the music into deep, richly mood-driven territory.

Bosnian Rainbows is the new incarnation of Omar Rodríguez-López’s music project following the break up of his band The Mars Volta. The group consists of former TMV member Deantoni Parks on drums and keyboard, along with new members Nicci Kasper on keyboards and Teri Gender Bender on vocals.  Bosnian Rainbows holds on to Rodríguez-López’s past musical influences, but performs shorter, more stripped down songs with hooks and refrains geared more towards mainstream radio play.

Rodríguez-López considers Bosnian Rainbows to be a break away from the pattern in which he’s approached music over the last ten years.  In a 2012 interview with Australian Musician magazine, he states  “My first hurdle that I need to jump over is collaborating with my own band members, because for the last ten years it hasn’t been that way.”  Rodríguez-López goes on to say he’s held the reins as “dictator” of The Mars Volta, and he now seeks to harness the spirit of collaboration in his music writing process.  Bosnian Rainbows is the result of this new creative freedom.


Hardcore TMV fans may be inclined to size Teri Gender Bender up before hearing and seeing her, and I admit I found it hard to imagine another lead singer taking the place of larger than life Cedric Bixler-Zavala.  Cedric’s distinct vocal contributions to The Mars Volta branded the music with raw emotional intensity, and a tortured, pressurized narrative.  Listeners can undeniably pick his voice out in mere seconds.  Yet when Teri Gender Bender took the stage at Highline Ballroom, I was won over by her wildly expressive voice and dangerous abandon, all within the course of the opening song.

Teri’s performance is exhilarating to watch as she becomes so absorbed in the music that at times she looks as though she’s forgotten the limitations of her own body.  She dances as though possessed by the music.  She throws herself out into the crowd without a moments notice. At one point she became so worked up that she punched herself in the throat while singing.  People in the crowd glanced at each other in shock and awe at witnessing such “rock n’ roll” conviction.  She’s a powerhouse.  Previously the lead singer in the punk rock duo Le Butcherettes, she is no stranger to the stage. Her vocals employ frankness and strength, and a beautiful depth of vulnerability, anger and theatricality.  She shines on songs “Torn Maps” and “Turtle Neck”, which give her more of a pop format to follow, and she is versatile enough to transition into effect heavy songs that wind on in Rodríguez-López’s expansive tradition.

The most thrilling aspect of Bosnian Rainbows’ performance is the excitement and passion these seasoned musicians imbue into their performance. The signature guitar stylings of Rodríguez-López were ever present, yet the songs had fresh influences contributed by Parks, Casper, and Teri.  Each band member has a dynamic personality that brings character to the performance, but audience members will find it hard to take their eyes off Teri Gender Bender.  She exudes endless energy throughout the  the show, and steals the spotlight with her intense conviction to the music.


This new project seems destined to make a mark in the commercial world, as well as among TMV’s mainstream-defying, dedicated fans.  It’s too early to tell if Bosnian Rainbows will be the first in a series of Rodríguez-López collaborations, or if the band will solidify and compete with TMV’s long track record.  Either way, Bosnian Rainbows embodies the rawness and excitement of an underground show, and the musicianship of seasoned performers.  The combination is a promise of many more surprises to come.