OKAY! It's over and here we are in 2022. What was your favorite new music of last year? Well, if you don't know, check out this ultimate list of the absolute best rock songs of 2021. We guarantee there will be a song or two you will love ... if you're a classic rock fan.
TOP ALBUMS OF 2021
21. Nancy Wilson, 'You and Me'
Nancy Wilson bided her time to release her debut solo album, but it was worth the wait. You and Me sees Wilson in a new light, highlighting her talent as a guitarist — her primary role in Heart – but also as a confident lead vocalist. In her own words, You and Me was not a planned affair, but an endeavor brought on by the lockdown. “I’m not going to sit here and do a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle,” she told Rolling Stone in 2020. You and Me includes originals, but it's her choice of covers that stand out, each a small nod to fellow musicians who have inspired her along the way: Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer," Pearl Jam's "Daughter" and others. Wilson even brings some special guests along for the ride like Sammy Hagar, Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters and Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, making for a collaborative effort during an isolated year. She also pays tribute to those she's lost — the opening title track was written for her late mother, while the closing song "4 Edward" is a tender acoustic note for Eddie Van Halen. — Allison Rapp
20. Micky Dolenz, 'Dolenz Sings Nesmith'
For his first studio album in nine years, Micky Dolenz returned to the material of an old friend, his former Monkees bandmate Michael Nesmith. While the LP does feature several Monkees deep cuts, it’s the songs Nesmith penned at other points in his career which really shine. “Different Drum” (made famous by Linda Ronstadt) becomes a folky rocker in Dolenz’s hands, while “Little Red Rider” (originally recorded by Nesmith’s First National Band) is delivered in a surprisingly raucous way. Overall, the album serves as a well-crafted tribute from one friend to another, showcasing Nesmith’s impressive songwriting, while also proving Dolenz still has plenty in the tank, even at 76 years old. The two will head out for one final Monkees trek in the fall of 2021. We can only hope a few of these non-Monkees gems sneak into the set lists as well. — Corey Irwin
19. Steve Lukather, 'I Found the Sun Again'
A combination of original material and cover songs, Steve Lukather offered up a little bit of everything with his ninth solo LP I Found the Sun Again. The singer and guitarist, best known as the sole continuous founding member of Toto, channeled some of his band’s famous jazz-inspired sound on the track "Serpent Soul." Still, much of the album strayed from that particular brand of rock. Instead, Lukather delivered an eclectic LP, featuring moody grooves (“I Found the Sun Again”), heavy-handed rockers (“Along For the Ride”) and even a soaring instrumental (“Journey Through”). Adding to the album were some of the musician’s famous friends, including Toto bandmates Joseph Williams and David Paich, and Beatle Ringo Starr. Covers on the LP include renditions of Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs” and Joe Walsh’s “Welcome to the Club.” — Irwin
18. Monster Magnet, 'A Better Dystopia'
Monster Magnet frontman Dave Wyndorf noted in the news release for A Better Dystopia that he didn't want to spend his quarantine "panhandling on the internet, hawking masks and Zoom-rocking practice sessions." So the band instead hunkered down in a small New Jersey recording studio and let loose on covers of obscure late-'60s and early-'70s psychedelic and garage-rock gems. A Better Dystopia's 13 songs are perfectly chosen and delivered with high skill and wild abandon. These 48 minutes fly by, with strong takes on the Scientists' "Solid Gold Hell" and the Table Scraps' "Motorcycle (Straight to Hell)" getting especially high marks. The result is one hell of a fun ride that also helps to illustrate exactly where Wyndorf got his unique sensibility. — Matthew Wilkening
17. Liquid Tension Experiment, 'Liquid Tension Experiment 3'
The virtuosos in Liquid Tension Experiment had no reason to reunite beyond the thrill of collaboration — well, that and maybe boredom. The instrumental prog supergroup knocked out their third LP (and first in 22 years) during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with everyone’s touring demands lightened indefinitely. “It certainly has been on all our minds, and we definitely knew there was interest and a demand,” guitarist John Petrucci recalled in April. “And honestly, the past year, with everybody being off the road — literally every musician — there was no conflict of schedule anymore, so you really couldn't make that excuse." Liquid Tension Experiment assembled the album through a few weeks of jams, winding up with plenty of neck-breaking, solo-stuffed workouts (“Hypersonic”) but also some intriguing experiments, like a metallic duet between bassist Tony Levin and drummer Mike Portnoy (“Chris & Kevin’s Amazing Odyssey”) and the atmospheric calm of “Liquid Evolution.” — Ryan Reed
16. Styx, Crash of the Crown'
Although they’re on the brink of their 50th year as a band, Styx continues to clock new milestones. The title track of their newest album, Crash of the Crown, finds all three vocalists – Tommy Shaw, Lawrence Gowan and James “J.Y.” Young – sharing lead vocal duties for the first time on a Styx recording. Keeping things in a historical vein, Winston Churchhill makes an appearance (okay, via archival audio) on the anthemic “Save Us From Ourselves,” while Shaw successfully sneaks a banjo into the framework of “Our Wonderful Lives.” Working from home because of the pandemic also gave the Styx members a chance to utilize vintage gear that doesn’t travel well. (Witness the appearance of Gowan’s MiniMoog as one example.) Throwback synths and organs echoing the band’s ‘70s heyday are generously granted admission in a number of spots throughout the album. For those who enjoyed the band’s 2017 comeback The Mission, this latest album is a worthy sequel. — Matt Wardlaw
15. Greta Van Fleet, 'The Battle at Garden's Gate'
These Michigan retro-rock revivalists saw your “Led Zeppelin cosplay” jokes and raised you some strings. Everything about Greta Van Fleet’s second full-length is more expansive: the instrumentation, the song lengths, the budget, the fantasy-realm absurdity, the physical range of Josh Kiszka’s Valhalla-seeking shriek. Working with top-drawer producer Greg Kurstin (Paul McCartney, Foo Fighters, Adele), Greta Van Fleet leaned into their proggiest, heaviest instincts — jettisoning the dopey folk-rock detours (“You’re the One”) that bogged down stretches of their 2018 debut, Anthem of the Peaceful Army. They sound more natural in this cinematic space, allowing guitarist Jake Kiszka to orchestrate riffs on a bigger scale (like on epics “Age of Machine” and “The Weight of Dreams”). Sure, nothing about The Battle of Garden’s Gate is particularly original — but who cares? Few bands recycle the past with such flair and finesse. — Reed
14. Cheap Trick, 'In Another World'
To paraphrase Cheap Trick themselves, “Everything works if you let it.” So when it came to In Another World, their 20th studio album, they didn’t veer from the usual playbook. But Cheap Trick are hardly just churning out tired retreads of their glory years: If anything, they’re adding vital chapters, with new music that’s as tightly constructed and energetically rockin’ as their most celebrated albums. One can argue that drummer Daxx Nielsen has given the group a much-needed shot in the arm on the records they’ve made since his 2010 arrival. “The Summer Looks Good on You” oozes with attitude paired with a glorious vocal snarl from Robin Zander, while “Boys & Girls & Rock N Roll” has a delightful Bowie-esque tint. “Light Up the Fire” is a rowdy, psychedelic crusher that features some choice guitar shredding from the ever-colorful Rick Nielsen, and the album closer of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” is another worthy addition to their Beatles-related songbook. In Another World is arguably the best album Cheap Trick has put forth in the past decade. — Wardlaw
13. Melvins, 'Working With God'
Melvins brought back members of the "Melvins 1983" lineup for their 24th studio album, as original drummer Mike Dillard returned to his post for the first time since 2013's Tres Cabrones. (Longtime current drummer Dale Crover, who wasn't in the band in 1983, moved over to bass.) Dillard's approach is far more direct than Crover's nuanced wizardry, and the shift once again seems to have brought out the delightfully primal side of singer-guitarist Buzz Osborne's playing. Humorous and profane takes on the Beach Boys' "I Get Around" and Harry Nilsson's "You're Breaking My Heart" might grab your attention at first, but the more lasting thrills can be found on original propulsive rockers such as "Bouncing Rick" and "The Great Good Place." — Wilkening
12. Steven Wilson, 'The Future Bites'
Steven Wilson has always been much more than a progressive rock musician: From day one, as a solo artist and collaborator, he’s experimented with psychedelia, electronica, alt-rock, trip-hop and metal – pretty much any style that doesn’t involve trap beats or cowboy hats. He just happens to have earned fame as bandleader of Porcupine Tree, the most purely prog-leaning project in his massive repertoire – even as his music keeps evolving beyond the label he can’t seem to shed. His sixth solo LP, The Future Bites, is the most modern-sounding, least muso-centric work in his catalog: built on glistening synths (“Man of the People”), glitchy beats (“King Ghost”) and eerie vocal effects, with bursts of pop-rock balladry (“12 Things I Forgot”) and demented electro-funk (“Eminent Sleaze”) rounding out the palette. The future may bite – but for Wilson, its possibilities seem limitless. — Reed
11. Blackberry Smoke, 'You Hear Georgia'
There's always been a steady stream of strong rock bands out of Atlanta, Ga., Blackberry Smoke among them. Their seventh studio album, You Hear Georgia, marks the group's 20th anniversary, and Blackberry Smoke aimed to emphasize that deeply rooted connection with their Southern roots. Working with fellow Georgian producer Dave Cobb and special guests including Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes, the Black Bettys and Jamey Johnson, You Hear Georgia is a hardy combination of driving rock tracks and slower, more relaxed country folk-esque tunes recorded at Nashville's famed RCA Studios. The result is an honorable homage to their home state. — Rapp
10. Alice Cooper, 'Detroit Stories'
Alice Cooper has certainly built himself a brand. His 21st studio album, Detroit Stories, is instantly recognizable as being his. Working with his tried-and-true band of musicians, along with longtime producer Bob Ezrin, Cooper incorporated the usual drama and embellishment, but this time he offered another theme for fans to follow: nostalgia. Born in Detroit, Cooper moved away when he was young and attempted, as many young rock bands of the time did, to launch a musical career out of L.A. with the Alice Cooper Band. He eventually made his way back to Detroit, where the group found mainstream success being themselves. This was the unconventional, gritty community that Cooper paid tribute to on Detroit Stories, which features numerous fellow Detroit names like Wayne Kramer from MC5 and Johnny “Bee” Badanjek from Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. On his cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Cooper even shifts lyrics that look back on New York to focus on Detroit. For many fans, part of the appeal of Cooper is that he's always looking forward, but on Detroit Stories, he proves that looking back can be just as much fun. — Rapp
9. Billy Gibbons, 'Hardware'
On his third studio album, Hardware, Billy Gibbons brought the heat. The legendary ZZ Top guitarist actually set up shop in the California desert when crafting this record, and that proved to be the perfect location to crank the volume. “You’re surrounded with a lot of sand, rocks and cactus – maybe a few rattlesnakes thrown in for good measure," Gibbons said. “But that was really the environment that served as a very creative outlet to make some loud noise.” Hardware was made with only a small handful of people working by Gibbons' side (including drummer Matt Sorum and guitarist Austin Hanks), but there was another person Gibbons wanted to honor with a scorching record like this one: his longtime producer Joe Hardy, who worked with Gibbons on his two previous solo albums, and for whom he named Hardware. Between the LP's opening track, the bluesy "My Lucky Card," the special guest appearance from Southern rock sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe on "Stackin' Bones," and the psychedelic spoken word of the final song "Desert High," Gibbons lets rip as only he can. — Rapp
8. Kings of Leon, 'When You See Yourself'
Kings of Leon made their hoped-for destiny real by becoming mainstream rock stars, playing bigger and bigger songs before bigger and bigger audiences. Somewhere along the way, however, they started to take the process – and then, it seems, themselves – far too seriously. Their music lost its agency, its free-wheeling vibe. Once seen as saviors of Southern rock, Kings of Leon became a bit of a drag. The intriguing thing about how they've come back from the brink is that the Followills started taking things even more seriously. But rather than trying (and trying) to write the Next Anthem, they began peering inward. Wholly unexpected, that introspection provides the emotional foundation for darker, yet far more authentic new successes on When You See Yourself. Maybe Kings of Leon will never be huge stars again (in fact, this album's shadowy soundscapes likely ensure it), but at least they've broken out of the gilded arena-rock cage they built for themselves. – Nick DeRiso
7. Weezer, 'Van Weezer'
Van Weezer was never going to boast the seedy danger of '80s glam metal, no matter the title and album-cover treatment. Asking that from Weezer is to misunderstand the group, certainly at this late date. Sure, this is their rockingest project since 2002’s Maladroit, perhaps the band's best post-reunion LP. But Van Weezer is really – like so much of their music – about sweet nostalgia, something Rivers Cuomo totally cops to in "I Need Some of That" when he longs for a place where he can "press rewind and go back to a simpler place." His apparently eternal boyishness ensures that Van Weezer is too hooky, too happy and at times maybe too damned cute to have emerged from the Sunset Strip. (More like Saved by the Bell.) In the end, however, this isn't a problem. In fact, it's a strength. Call Van Weezer a guilty pleasure, if you must, but that's not always a bad thing. – DeRiso
6. Weezer, 'OK Human'
The first of two Weezer albums released in the first half of 2021 is the less-gimmicky one, concept-free and the better record because of that. Unlike the hair-metal tribute Van Weezer that came out four months later, OK Human riffs on Radiohead (see: that title) by turning things around with a totally analogue recording rooted in the chamber-pop music from the mid '60s through early '70s. With an orchestra aiding the band without getting in the way, it's the most organic-sounding Weezer album and one of their best, with tracks like "All My Favorite Songs" finding a sweet spot between melancholy and joy. — Michael Gallucci
5. Chrissie Hynde, 'Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan'
Chrissie Hynde is no stranger to Bob Dylan tunes. She's joined him on stage, regularly sung "Forever Young" with the Pretenders, and utterly owned "I Shall Be Released" at his 30th anniversary concert. Still, a quarantine project devoted to covering this vast catalog – sparked by the surprise arrival of a new Dylan song, "Murder Most Foul," in the early days of lockdown last year – would have to somehow claim its own narrative voice. Hynde finds unlikely purchase by returning to early-'80s Dylan fare. Songs like "In the Summertime," "Sweetheart Like You" and "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" are typically, and sometimes rightly, overlooked in a discography stuffed with era-defining classics. But they're also unexamined enough to give Hynde plenty of interpretive space, opening our ears to her tough vulnerability before she returns to the perhaps more-expected "Love Minus Zero / No Limit" and "Every Grain of Sand." Well named, this album's title track is its triumph. She has a sigh that's worth a million words. – DeRiso
4. Mammoth WVH, 'Mammoth WVH'
Wolfgang Van Halen had to thread quite a narrow needle while launching his solo career: establishing a musical identity separate from his father Eddie's massive shadow while still living up to his family's high standards, just months after the guitar legend's death. No pressure, right? But he pulls it off with seeming ease on Mammoth WVH, acting as a one-man band on an impressively sharp and hook-filled collection of songs that draw from a completely different set of influences than Van Halen. You won't find any of David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar's cocky vocal swagger or winking sexual foreplay here. But there's a big dose of pop smarts along with plenty of clever, complex instrumental bits to reward repeated listens. Best of all, the disciplined focus on structure, hooks and melodies never wavers. No wonder Eddie couldn't stop raving about this record. — Wilkening
3. Peter Frampton, 'Frampton Forgets the Words'
That Peter Frampton can play with such subtle fluidity may come as a surprise to anyone who last checked in during the Comes Alive era. But this smartly titled instrumental project isn't Frampton's initial foray into lyric-less brilliance: He won a Grammy for his first one, 2006's excellent Fingerprints. Forgets the Words is in some ways rangier, as his new set of covers draws deft lines between R&B (Sly and the Family Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay," Marvin Gaye's "One More Heartache"), pop (Roxy Music's "Avalon"), Americana (Alison Krauss' "Maybe"), jazz (Jaco Pastorius' "Dreamland") and – of course – rock (George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity," Radiohead's "Reckoner," David Bowie's "Loving the Alien"). In the end, however, Forgets the Words makes the same case: There's far more to Peter Frampton than his open-shirted talk-box heyday. — DeRiso
2. Foo Fighters, 'Medicine at Midnight'
Foo Fighters will never escape that middle-of-the-road, '90s-meets-the-'00s rock 'n' roll thing they do, so calling their 10th album, Medicine at Midnight, a shift in style really means they've added a few new detours. It's pretty much what you expect from a Foo Fighters album: fist-raising anthems and arena-shaking rock songs sprinkled with a dash of introspection. What's new here are the dance and pop elements Dave Grohl drops into songs like "Shame Shame" and "Waiting on a War." Medicine at Midnight won't change the way you think about Foo Fighters, but it does offer some insight into what they're capable of when they switch lanes. — Gallucci
1. The Black Keys, 'Delta Kream'
The Black Keys have spent the past several years proving they're capable of more than just replicating the hill country blues that helped launch their career two decades ago. But on their 10th album, they swivel back to the sound for their least-fussy and rawest record since 2010's Brothers made them new-century rock 'n' roll saviors. Covering songs by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and others (and also employing sidemen who've played with the late bluesmen), Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are back in their element on Delta Kream, pounding out garage-rock stompers like "Poor Boy a Long Way From Home" and John Lee Hooker's oft-covered "Crawling Kingsnake" that are injected with a bit of back-road history and lots of grit. — Gallucci